Mar 16, 2017
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Travel Resources

The Simple Guide to Airline Passenger Rights

Lady at TimeTable

You’re flying out of Chicago in January, which is always a little risky, but lo and behold, the skies are clear. Then, the gate agent announces your flight home to Boston is delayed by an hour, due to mechanical issues. NBD, you think. Then the delay stretches to two hours. Then it’s cancelled. The next flight home doesn’t leave for five hours. And the airline gives you…. nada.

“Hey!” you might say. “I have rights!” And you’re right. The U.S. Department of Transportation has spelled out airline passengers’ rights when flights are delayed, cancelled, stuck on the runway or overbooked. But passengers aren’t always aware of what the airline owes them: cash, vouchers, lunch — or nothing. Here’s a quick guide to passengers’ rights.

What are my passenger rights when my flight is delayed?

Many airline passengers expect delayed flight compensation when they’re kept waiting in the airport for hours. But “contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled,” the Department of Transportation states. The good news is that many airlines have their own delayed-flight policies. If a flight is cancelled or delayed because of a reason within the airline’s control, the airline may issue meal or hotel vouchers to passengers stuck in the airport. But don’t count on every airline, especially budget carriers, to do this.

Things are a little better in the European Union, which has granted certain air passenger rights for E.U.-based flights and airlines. If your flight’s departure is delayed, airlines should offer you free refreshments, food, hotel accommodation and transportation (for overnight delays) and two phone calls or emails. If your E.U. flight’s arrival is delayed more than three hours, passengers are entitled to compensation, unless the delay was due to “extraordinary circumstances,” meaning things like weather and security risks.

What are my passenger rights when my flight is stuck on the runway?

The Department of Transportation has strict rules about runway delays. A domestic flight may not remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless there’s a safety- or security-related reason that prevents the plane from letting passengers off, or if air traffic control says that taxiing to the gate would disrupt airport operations.1 Also, a snack and water must be provided after a two-hour delay, bathrooms must be operable and medical attention must be provided if necessary. An airline may be fined for a lengthy tarmac delay, but it’s not required to compensate passengers.

These rules apply to U.S. airlines only. In 2015, an Etihad Airways flight made headlines for leaving passengers stranded on a foggy runway for 12 hours in Abu Dhabi. By the time the plane arrived in San Francisco, passengers had spent a grueling 28 hours on board.2

What are my passenger rights when I’m bumped from a flight?

When a flight is oversold, the DOT says airlines must first ask for volunteers to get bumped, usually in exchange for a flight voucher, a seat on a later flight and (maybe) meal or hotel vouchers. If you’re bumped involuntarily, the airline must give you a written statement explaining your rights, and in general, must offer you compensation if the substitute transportation gets you to your final destination more than an hour late. Compensation ranges from two to four times your original one-way ticket fare, up to $1,300. If you paid for optional services, such as seat selection, those fees should be refunded too.3 The airline may offer you a flight voucher in place of a check, which you’re free to accept or reject.

What if being bumped is going to cost you more than the airline’s offering? Maybe you’re missing an important business meeting, or the embarkation of your cruise ship. In that case, the DOT says, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with the airline by filing a complaint, or even take the airline to court. Just don’t cash the check you were given until the matter’s settled.4

What are my passenger rights when my luggage gets lost or damaged?

Airlines are getting better at tracking and handling baggage all the time, but bags still get misplaced, crushed, shredded, rifled through and destroyed. According to the DOT, “airlines are liable for provable consequential damages up to the amount of their liability limit”: up to $3,500 for each passenger for domestic flights.5 This includes the value of any essential items purchased during the delay, such as clothing and toiletries.6 Of course, proving the value of that lost luggage, and getting an airline to pay up, can be a challenge. You’ll need to notify the airline immediately of the loss, and furnish receipts or other proof of the value of the contents. The best tip we’ve heard: Snap a few quick photos of the contents of your luggage as you pack.

Why do I need travel insurance if airlines will compensate me for travel problems?

Here’s the best way we can put it: When you’re facing a travel hiccup, you have to hope the airline will compensate you appropriately. You can rely on travel insurance to compensate you, as long as you understand what your policy covers. For example:

• Travel delay benefit can reimburse you for meals, accommodations and lost prepaid expenses if your flight is delayed more than six hours. Remember, airlines aren’t required to give you any delayed flight compensation.
• Baggage delay benefit can reimburse you for essential items purchased because your bags were delayed at least 24 hours.
• Baggage loss/damage benefit can reimburse to replace possessions that get damaged or lost.
• Missed connection benefit can help you continue your trip if you miss a connecting flight or cruise departure through no fault of your own.
• 24-hour customer assistance can help you rebook travel arrangements or deal with a trip interruption, free of charge.

As you shop for travel insurance plans from Allianz Global Assistance, read coverage details carefully and call our experts if you have any questions: 1-866-884-3556. Travel happy!

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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