Airline Passenger 'Rights': More Circumstance Than Law

VIDEO: New Airline Fees
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Travelers continue to ask about their air travel "rights" in situations where they have no special rights.

As we've so often noted, the U.S. government mandates only three such "rights" for air travelers:

1) Compensation when you're bumped due to overbooking --and for no other reason;
2) A requirement for domestic flights that an airline not keep you on the tarmac more than three hours without giving you an opportunity to get off the plane; and
3) a requirement that an airline must accept lost/damaged baggage liability up to $3,000 in depreciated value per passenger for a domestic flight (limits on international flights are either about $1,700 or $635, depending on which rule applies).

Beyond those, all you can claim is what's in each airline's contract of carriage, and those contracts are heavily biased toward airlines, not customers.

Missed Flight Rebooking

One reader asks about what rights apply when you miss a flight and have to rebook:

"I missed a ticketed flight because TSA was taking over an hour to screen travelers. To arrange an alternative flight, Expedia charged me a stiff rebooking fee and an additional fare collection. I have two questions:

Don't tickets have to list all rebooking and other fees? And can Expedia make me book a more expensive flight than the original?"

The short answers are (1) no and (2) yes. But the problem probably isn't with Expedia. More likely it's with the airline involved.

Basically, as we covered before, if you miss a "legal" connection on a single-ticket itinerary, you don't have to pay extra. Instead, the airline just books you on the next available flight.

But if you miss a flight or connection for any other reason, most airlines treat you as a no-show. That means, when you rebook, you're on the hook to pay whatever the lowest currently available fare is for a newly-booked ticket, plus whatever exchange fee the airline charges to retain the cash value of your old ticket. That could add hundreds of dollars to your cost.

The airlines' legal position for taking such a hard line is in their contracts, which state that you, the passenger, are responsible for getting to the departure gate on time -- and usually 5 to 30 minutes before scheduled departure, depending on airline, airport, and your destination.

Some airlines or agents, however, bend these rules in some circumstances:

  • When you miss departure because security is running especially slowly.
  • A few lines even honor a "flat tire" excuse when you have car trouble on the way to the airport.
  • Although not the rule, an airline may sometimes allow you to reschedule a connecting flight even when you're using two separate tickets on two different airlines.

But bending the rules in such cases is a courtesy, not a contractual requirement. If an airline does bend the rules, the usual fix is to rebook you on that line's next available flight. You may have to pay a standby fee, but you usually don't have to buy a new ticket. But these decisions are strictly up to the discretion of the airline's agents. The base contracts just say, "Don't miss the flight."

In general, if your best alternative is to complete your trip on another line, neither your first line nor agency is obligated to transfer your ticket to a second line. To fly on the second line, you'd have to buy a completely new ticket. And if you're traveling on a nonrefundable ticket, at best, you could retain the cash value of that ticket, less an exchange fee, toward a future trip.

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