Airline Passenger 'Rights': More Circumstance Than Law

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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.

These are firm airline policies which an agency cannot override. Agencies such as Expedia simply abide by them. And when you have a problem such as this, your best bet is to pursue alternatives with the airline's agents on the spot, not the agency. If you get charged extra, it's because of the airline, not the agency.

Delayed Baggage

Another reader, annoyed that his baggage didn't arrive on his flight, asked about delayed baggage:

"When my bag doesn't arrive on my arriving flight, what are my rights to compensation? Does the airline have to pay for interim expenses?"

The short answer, at least for most airlines, is, "They promise to get your bag back to you as soon as possible. If you're no longer at an airport, they'll deliver it to your home or hotel, and most say they'll cover interim expenses."

Here are the exact statements from their customer service plans or contracts of carriage:

  • Alaska: "Please purchase any essential and reasonable items you need while your baggage is missing," including necessary clothing and toiletries; keep receipts, and claim expenses.
  • American: "When customer baggage is delayed, an American Airlines/American Eagle Baggage Service Representative may authorize reasonable interim expenses to purchase items necessary for immediate use."
  • Delta: "Delta requires that receipts be presented for all reasonable expense reimbursements incurred due to the delay of a passenger's bag. Reasonable expenses generally are $50 for the first 24 hours and $25 per day for the next four days the bag is delayed. The guidelines for reasonable expenses are NOT daily limits or a cap and additional expenses may be incurred and should be handled on an individual basis up to the limit of liability."
  • United: "United will be responsible for reasonable and verifiable expenses related to baggage delays for purchases such as toiletries."
  • US Airways: "When customers have made a claim within four hours of flight arrival and baggage is delayed for 24 hours or longer after making a claim, US Airways provides our customers interim expenses to purchase toiletries and clothing."
  • As far as I can tell, Continental, JetBlue, and Southwest either don't post official delayed baggage policies or bury them so deeply in their websites that I can't find them. But, in my experience, they generally do about what the other lines do.

Thus, most lines help out with essentials when your bag is delayed. But that's all you get – no additional cash, voucher value, or frequent flyer miles. And, obviously, that "reasonable expenses" limit means reasonable: No Armani suits or Dior gowns.

No Refund for Schedule Changes?

Another reader experienced a problem that I would not have expected:

"I had a nonrefundable ticket on JetBlue, but two weeks before my flight, the airline changed the flight schedule. I had planned a meeting at JFK during my connection layover, but the new schedule gave me no opportunity for the meeting. So I cancelled the flight and asked for a refund. Imagine my surprise when the airline refused to give me a refund. Instead, it offered full cash value toward a future JetBlue ticket, which I could use for a ticket for anyone. Is this right?"

My short answer here is, "No it's not right, but airlines do a lot of things that aren't right."

I checked the contracts of carriage for the eight largest lines, as above, and found that their contract provisions regarding schedule changes are all about the same:

  • In the event of a schedule change, all offer the choice between transportation on the next available flight or a full refund.
  • But all those provisions obviously apply to changes immediately before a scheduled departure or during a trip, not to changes days or weeks in advance. Oddly, none offers the option of taking an earlier flight – just the next available flight. Strange.

It seems obvious to me that if an airline reschedules your flight at any time, it owes you a full refund if the new schedule doesn't work for you, no matter what. But when my friend challenged JetBlue, the airline stuck by the "no refund" policy. I suspect he would easily win a small-claims court case, but I'm not sure whether he wants to bother.

Ed Perkins is a SmarterTravel contributing editor and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental. This article originally appeared on SmarterTravel.

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