June 16, 2008 -- The summer travel season is here, and Americans are expected to take more than 211 million air trips in the next three months.
So it pays to know what your rights are -- and aren't. Every few years, there's some horror story about passengers stranded on the tarmac and members of Congress get all fired up about passing a passenger's bill of rights. But then … they wimp out. However, you do have some rights. And if you've got gumption, you can pretend you've got others.
Unfortunately, if your flight is delayed or canceled, the airline is not obligated to do anything for you. Even if it's the airline's own darn fault. One nifty way to guard against this is to check the reliability of a given flight before you book, by looking at the on-time performance code. Of course it's not in plain English. It's a one-digit code that tells you how often the flight has been within 15 minutes of its scheduled arrival time over the past month. For example, if the code is "7," that means the flight was on time 70 to 79 percent of the time.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success, so be ready to grab some extra rights for yourself through sheer will. If your flight is delayed or canceled, ask for stuff. Be that squeaky wheel. Ask the airline if it offers hotel rooms, meal vouchers or telephone calling cards to stranded passengers.
There is no law requiring airlines to do this, but many do. They are more sympathetic if the delay is their fault than if it's caused by severe weather. One study showed airlines respond best when passengers make specific requests. Don't just angrily ask to be "compensated." Instead, decide what you want and calmly and politely ask for it.
A couple years ago, my parents paid for the entire extended family of 26 to travel to Hawaii together. We got to the airport bright and early only to learn that our flight was canceled because the airplane door was jammed. We had to wait 15 hours for the next flight. We missed our connection to Kauai. We had to stay in a scuzzy Oahu hotel that night. And we lost the money we'd paid for the first night in our Kauai hotel. Sound like a legitimate grievance? I thought so. I wrote a nice letter asking for free round-trip tickets for my parents to return to Hawaii at their leisure. The airline said yes (and was probably relieved that I didn't ask for more).
If your flight is delayed or canceled and you decide to search for a flight on another airline, you may have better luck calling the toll free number than going to the ticket counter. If you find a suitable flight but it's more expensive, ask your original airline to "endorse your ticket" to the new carrier. By doing this, you may save yourself from having to pay the higher fare. Sometimes airlines will honor each other's endorsements as a matter of good will, but they're not obligated to do so.
If the airline overbooks your flight and you are involuntarily bumped, that's another story. Then you do have specific rights that are guaranteed by federal law. First the airline will try to find volunteers willing to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. If that doesn't work, typically the last passengers to check in are the first to get involuntarily bumped. If you are one of them and the airline manages to get you to your final destination within an hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, you get nothing. Sorry.
But if the airline cannot get you there within two hours of your original arrival time for a domestic flight and four hours for an international flight, then the airline must compensate you. That reimbursement rate just changed and is now capped at $400. If your arrival is delayed more than that, you can be awarded up to $800.
If a flight is overbooked and you volunteer to give up your seat, usually the airline makes a standard offer, but actually the compensation is negotiable. If lots of people volunteer, the airline will choose the people who make the most modest demands. But if you can tell that the airline is having trouble getting enough volunteers, that's the time to go for the jugular. Most airlines offer a free round-trip ticket. Ask if you can have one without an expiration date. Without blackout dates. Without regional restrictions. Heck, ask for one that lets you fly to another country. For that matter, if you'd rather have cash, put on your poker face and demand money.
If an airline loses your luggage, don't immediately despair. Airlines are actually pretty good at finding people's suitcases even if "many bags look alike." Just think, you won't have to lug the thing, because most airlines deliver lost bags to your door. Years ago, when I was backpacking in Europe, an airline misplaced my big, grungy backpack in Zurich. I was on my way to a tiny town in the Alps that was hours away by train. Sure enough, the airline somehow arranged to drive my pack up the mountain and delivered it a couple hours after I arrived at my hotel.
If you are not so fortunate, the airline is required to compensate you for the loss of your belongings. The domestic limit is $1,250. The international limit is $9.07 per pound up to a total of $640 per bag. Be prepared to prove the value of the items you packed. Airlines compensate you for actual value only, not replacement value. If your suitcase is damaged in transit, most airlines will pay for repairs or pay to replace it. Same goes for the items inside, although the airline will balk if the contents broke while the suitcase itself appears unscathed. There are important exceptions you should know about. Most airlines post a list of excluded baggage they will not cover. Watch out. Electronic equipment is a common one and includes laptop computers.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK:
Find out whether the flight you're considering is typically on time. Flights early in the day tend to have a better record because there's a domino effect in delays as the day goes on.
Ask for compensation if your flight is badly delayed or canceled, even though you have no legal right to it.
If you opt to change carriers, get the old carrier to "endorse" your ticket and try to get the new carrier to match the fare.
Arrive early so you won't be involuntarily bumped.
If you are bumped against your will, make sure you get the compensation guaranteed by federal law.
If you volunteer to give up your seat, negotiate the best possible compensation package for yourself.
Before going to the airport, see if the airline refuses to cover certain types of baggage. Don't bring the items or carry them on.
If the airline loses your luggage, insist on filling out a written claim and keep a copy. Keep the names of each person you speak with.
If your luggage is never found, document the value of your belongings in detail to receive the maximum compensation.