So you’ve planned the big family vacation. Airline tickets purchased – check. Hotel booked – check. Destination itinerary planned – check. The calendar dates are circled and your anticipation is building for a long-awaited and well-deserved getaway.
You probably never wonder what your legal rights are when travel glitches arise; things don’t go as planned and, in your view, it's the airline’s fault. But maybe you should. This article explores several of your rights as a passenger in the event that your next trip doesn’t go the way you had dreamed it would.
If You Need to Change or Cancel Your Tickets within 24 Hours of Purchase
Many airline passengers are not aware that, pursuant to U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, you are entitled to cancel or change your airline reservation within 24 hours of the original reservation date and time, even if it is a non-refundable reservation. This right applies as long as you make the cancellation at least seven days or more in advance of the scheduled date of travel.
We’ve all been in the position of boarding a plane, taking our seat, experiencing the satisfaction of feeling the plane push back from the gate, taxiing… and then waiting. Then the captain’s announcement: "Attention passengers, we’ve been advised that we need to refuel; we’ll be standing by for the next 30 minutes." Thirty minutes turns into 60; 60 turns into 90. How long of a wait is merely inconvenient? How long gives rise to a breach of the airline’s promise to transport you from Point A to Point B?
Pursuant to Department of Transportation regulations, U.S. airlines may not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours on domestic flights without deplaning the passengers on board. The time limit is four hours for international flights. Limited exceptions can apply, but only if the airline is acting to ensure the safety or security of the passengers, or if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. The Department of Transportation has the power to impose fines of up to $27,500 per passenger on U.S. and foreign airlines violating this rule. These penalties can add up: on January 15th, 2015, the DOT announced that it had levied a $1.6 million fine against Southwest Airlines for keeping passengers on 16 of its flights at Chicago’s Midway Airport stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours in early January 2014.
Getting Bumped from Your Flight
If you arrive at your boarding gate close to boarding time, only to be greeted by a boarding gate attendant with a frown, it could mean several things—most of them bad. If you hear, "I’m sorry, but this flight is overbooked," what does that mean in terms of your rights and remedies?
If the airline puts you on a replacement flight and you are expected to arrive less than one hour later than your original arrival time, the airline does not legally have to offer you any compensation for having bumped you. However, according to U.S. Department of Travel rules, if you are bumped to a new flight expected to arrive two to four hours after your original destination arrival time, you are entitled to receive 200% of the applicable one-way fare (up to $650). For instances of bumping to a new flight expected to arrive four hours or more after your original flight, you’re owed 400% of the one-way fare (up to $1,300). The airline may offer you a travel voucher, but you should demand the cash payment instead (the travel vouchers often come with usage restrictions).
In our hypothetical vacation scenario, the world might not end if you arrive at your destination two hours later than originally scheduled. The vacation will go on. But what if you are flying to attend an important business meeting?
Here, the terms of your airline ticket—your "contract of carriage"—with the airline will govern what happens. There is no law mandating what type of compensation (if any) that an airline must grant to you. Most airlines will allow you to receive a full refund if it is known that your departure will cause you to be more than X minutes late for your arrival at your destination, and the delay is within the airline’s control (i.e. it is their fault, as opposed to a result of bad weather or an "act of God"). The number of minutes will vary by airline. Delta Airlines, for example, offers a full refund for flights delayed more than 90 minutes (if you request the refund prior to boarding the delayed flight, and do not board the delayed flight).
Airlines typically apply the same rule to the cancellation of flights (where it was within their control) as to flights that are significantly delayed.
After spending hours packing everything you would need for your seven-day trip to Disney World, all appears lost when you arrive at the airport in Florida, only to wait … and wait… and wait for your luggage, which never arrives. Fortunately, pursuant to Department of Travel regulations, the airline is required to reimburse you up to $3,300 for all the luggage (and their contents) that you may have lost. The airline may ask you for a receipt or proof of purchase of the lost items. The airline is also allowed to depreciate the value of the suitcase and its contents (based on their age).
Special Accommodations on the Flight
What happens if your flight goes awry because you have a disability and the airline accorded you improper treatment on account of your disability? There are a host of legal protections that dictate the accommodations and service that an airline must provide to persons with disabilities. Airlines may not refuse transportation on the basis of disability, nor may they require advance notice that a person with a disability is traveling. Airlines may require up to 48 hours’ advance notice for certain accommodations to the extent that they require advance preparation, such as a respirator hook-up.
Furthermore, airlines may not require a person with a disability to travel with another person, except if it can be demonstrated that it is reasonable for the airline to require a safety assistant to accompany you (due to the specific nature of your condition). Airlines can’t exclude someone from a specific seat on the basis of a disability, nor require anyone to sit in a particular seat on the basis of disability. Aircraft with more than 60 seats and an accessible lavatory must have an onboard wheelchair.
Airlines are also required to provide assistance during the boarding process, as well as deplaning and in making connections. Cabin-area assistance is also required, but not extensive personal services.
Vacations don't always go as planned, but the law does provide some compensation and other benefits to passengers whose travel is delayed, canceled or otherwise interrupted. Here's hoping that you arrive at your destination safely, on time and with all your luggage. If not, it's good to know that there are a few laws and regulations on your side.
The above article does not provide legal advice, and instead provides general information.