The Essential Guide to Your Rights as an Airline Passenger
On New Year's Day, 1914, the first passenger airline service, the St.Petersburgh-Tampa Airboat Line, took its inaugural flight. The seaplane was made of wood, fabric and wire and flew barely five feet above the water on its 23-minute journey across the Tampa Bay. In addition to the pilot, the seaplane's lone passenger sat on a small wooden seat, completely exposed to the elements.
For four months, the airboat line made two flights daily, six days a week. The fare? $5.
Fast forward a century later, and the airlines of today look entirely different. Wooden seats have, thankfully, been replaced with fabric and cushion, and on average over 2 million people fly in and out of U.S. airports daily.
But as the airline industry grows and more people fly, the chance of something going wrong also increases. Flights get delayed, baggage gets lost and refunds are disputed. When disaster strikes, it's good to know that you as an airline passenger and consumer have rights — way more than the people flying across the Tampa Bay did in 1914.
Here, in a nutshell, is everything you need to know.
Understanding Your Contract
Did you know that the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airline carriers to include a contract on their website outlining their rules, regulations and responsibilities to passengers? Well, they do — yet few people know to check this before taking to the sky.
Everything from lost baggage to canceled flights to how an airline uses your personal data can be found within this crucial document, which is also called “conditions of carriage” or a “contract of carriage” (a complex term that seems designed to confuse people!). When you purchase your ticket, you're ipso facto consenting to every policy outlined in this document.
So what exactly is in these contracts, you ask? Specifics can vary between carriers, but every U.S. carrier must adhere to certain regulations set out by the DOT, as managed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Purchasing a Ticket
The DOT mandates that every airline must clearly state the total price of your ticket wherever they advertise, including all taxes, fees and carrier charges. And in cases where these fees appear in an itemized list, the total ticket price must appear prominently to avoid confusion.
Additionally, airlines are not allowed to boost the cost of your ticket by automatically adding on optional services, or by making you opt out of purchasing a service such as travel insurance or priority check-in. In all cases, you have the power to choose add-ons.
The same policies apply to baggage fees; according to DOT, airlines are required to provide "a clear link from the airline’s homepage to a page or place on the airline’s website that displays all of the airline’s baggage fees."
This means that airlines can not bill you for optional services without your consent — and if they do, you can absolutely protest the sneaky charges.
If you jumble the spelling of your name or invert the digits of your government-issued ID or passport, well — that’s bad news. Unfortunately, airlines are under no obligation to correct these mistakes for free.
That said, some airlines will allow you to make changes for free under certain conditions. JetBlue allows minor changes to ticket information without a fee, for example, if you get a special waiver code. (Though, according to their contract of carriage, "name changes are only permitted in the case of refundable fares.")
Confused? Call a customer service representative, and they should be able to help you sort things out.
If you fly with any sort of regularity, you’ve almost certainly had your flight unceremoniously canceled; indeed, according to the watchdog group Flight Aware, there are upwards of 1,500 flight cancellations on any given day.
If you’re left in the lurch after a canceled flight, you can take heart in knowing that, according to DOT policy, you are legally entitled to a full refund. Though it’s not mandated, most airlines will also offer to book you on their next available flight for free.
The bad news? Contrary to popular belief, when a flight is canceled, airlines are under zero obligation to transfer your reservation to another airline or to provide money for hotels, food or other transportation costs. So yes, it is perfectly legal to make you sleep in an airport on the brink of starvation, as deeply unfair as this seems.
Also, if you decide to cancel your trip for any reason, including on account of a serious emergency, airlines are not mandated to provide a refund.
(The DOT does, however, require airlines to allow you to cancel a ticket within 24 hours of purchase and to receive a full refund, or to allow you to place a ticket on hold for 24 hours — but only if the ticket is bought at least seven days in advance.)
While you have some rights if your flight is canceled, you’re in no such luck if your flight is delayed. In the case of a delay, airlines aren't legally bound to provide passengers with reimbursements, meal vouchers or hotel expenses.
In some cases, the attendant at your gate may offer to find you a flight on another carrier — but you could be charged a hefty cancellation fee or be subject to a fare increase. As such, as annoying as it is, it’s best to just wait it out in the case of a delay. Though they’re not mandated to do so, an airline may eventually offer to pay for meals or a hotel room if necessary.
In the case of significant delays, you can submit a complaint to the DOT. However, this doesn't guarantee you'll receive compensation for any inconvenience caused, and because the DOT has yet to define what exactly qualifies as a “significant delay,” these complaints are sorted on a case by case basis.
Whether before takeoff or after landing, tarmac delays can bring even the most seasoned traveler to his or her knees. Luckily, airlines are required by law to follow some guidelines, but there are a few exceptions to these rules that, if you’re not aware of them ahead of time, could morph any lengthy tarmac delay into a full-blown nightmare.
In general, the DOT prohibits any domestic tarmac delay from going beyond three hours (four hours for international flights) unless there's a legit safety or security concern or if doing so would disrupt airport operations. The former is at the discretion of the pilot and the latter of air traffic control.
During the duration of a tarmac delay, the airline must also maintain a comfortable cabin temperature and provide access to medical assistance and operable bathrooms. Plus, each passenger must be given water and a snack within two hours unless doing so violates a safety or security concern. Alas, carriers are under no obligation, regardless of the length of the delay, to offer full meals, though.
While the DOT stipulates a three-hour limit for tarmac delays, it isn't clear what your rights are if the suspension should, unfortunately, extend beyond that.
Additionally, while you can technically request to exit the plane after three hours, the airline has every right to reject your request. Plus, it is not required to let you back on and can leave without you if cleared for take off. Even worse? If you decide to depart the plane when given permission, the airline is under no obligation to offload your luggage, if or when the aircraft is given the green light for departure.
In other words: In the case of a tarmac delay, you have the right to a restroom, water and peanuts, and not much else.
Traveling with Children
In July of 2015, the Families Flying Together Act landed on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. Unfortunately, that's as far as it got. If passed, the act would've made it mandatory for airlines to allow families traveling with children under the age of 13 to sit together at no additional cost.
Today in 2019, there are still no federal regulations in place that prevent families, traveling with young children, from being separated on a plane. Unfortunately, to ensure they can sit together, parents are left with only one option — purchase premium seats.
"In honesty, what we're talking about is fairness," Rainer Jenss, president and founder of the Family Travel Association, tells “Far & Wide.” "If people are required to pay a premium to sit next to a friend, that’s a convenience charge. What I would argue is that sitting next to your child isn't a convenience; it's a necessity."
While the DOT offers some practical tips to avoid having to pay a premium for adjacent seats, Jenss insists the most critical action families can take is to book their flight as early as possible. "If you don't want to pay the premium...don't wait until the last minute when all those seats that are together in the back of the plane are usually gone.”
Overbooking and Voluntary Bumping
As maddening as it may be, it's not illegal for airlines to overbook flights to compensate for potential no-show passengers. If or when it happens, airlines are simply mandated by the federal government to identify passengers willing to be voluntarily bumped, or removed, from the overbooked flight.
In a scenario where you voluntarily agree to give up your seat, the airline is required to reserve a spot for you on the next available flight and to provide compensation. But the DOT suggests that, before you agree to getting bumped, you confirm a few details with the airline. For starters, make sure you'll have a guaranteed seat on the replacement flight; otherwise, you could be placed on standby.
When negotiating your compensation, know that the DOT has not set a minimum or maximum dollar amount for airlines to pay. And while you may be offered a free flight or a voucher instead, you can insist on cash compensation; the airline doesn’t have to pay you this way, but it’s always a good idea to ask.
Finally, if you accept a travel voucher, be aware of any restrictions that may apply. Be sure to ask about expiration dates, restricted travel periods and whether or not the voucher includes international flights, for example.
Overbooking and Involuntary Bumping
Believe it or not, after seeking out volunteers, airlines are allowed to remove passengers from a flight involuntarily. That said, if bumped, the DOT does require the airline to immediately provide you with a written statement that outlines your rights. At that point, you are entitled to compensation in the form of cash or check, which is typically determined by the original cost of your ticket and the overall length of the delay.
In some cases, the airline may arrange alternative transportation; if so, your compensation amount is subject to a specific set of rules. For example, if the airline arranges transportation that gets you to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, no compensation is required, but if it’s within two hours for domestic flights or one and four hours for international flights, you are entitled to "200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum."
And if the alternative transportation arrangement delays you more than two hours for domestic or over four hours for international flights — or you decline transportation altogether — you get "400% of your one-way fare, $1,350 maximum."
Bottom line: If you're involuntarily bumped from a flight, as infuriating as it may be, try to keep your cool to ensure you receive the compensation and accommodations you're legally entitled to.
Forced Removal from an Overbooked Flight
In April 2017, the social media world gasped in horror when a video of a bloodied Dr. David Dao being forcefully removed from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight splashed across the Internet. The incident inspired a heated debate over whether or not an airline has the right to involuntarily bump a passenger once they've been seated on the aircraft.
As public pressure mounted, the government responded by passing the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which included the Tickets Act. Under this new regulation, unless a passenger is unruly or disruptive, the airline "may not deny a revenue passenger traveling on a confirmed reservation permission to board, or involuntarily remove that passenger from the aircraft."
Unfortunately, to date, the Tickets Act has remained a mostly symbolic gesture given that the FAA has yet to enforce the policy. For example, while United Airlines’ contract of carriage reiterates the standard overbooking guidelines as they appear on DOT's website, there’s no mention of the Tickets Act.
If in the future, you're forcefully removed from a flight due to overbooking, there are steps you can take to hold the airline accountable. Joel Smiler, the hotline director of Flyersrights.org, a non-profit airline passenger advocacy group, recommends you begin by filing a complaint directly with the airline. If the airline hasn't responded within 30 days, the next step is to file a complaint with the DOT. Finally, if your efforts still aren't yielding results, Smiler recommends you turn to small claims court regardless of where the airline is based.
"If you're suing a French airline, you don't need to go to France," says Smiler. "You can sue them wherever they have a presence."
You're waiting for your luggage at baggage claim when suddenly you notice you're the only passenger still standing there watching the empty conveyer belt wobble round and round. It's then you realize that your baggage is more than likely lost.
Before you scramble for answers, know that your baggage won't be officially declared MIA until the airline confirms it. In general, most bags aren't considered lost until (yes) five to 14 days post-flight. It's best to reference your airline's contract of carriage to understand how they define lost baggage.
Once your bags are declared lost, the airline is then required to reimburse you for your bag's contents. The compensation amount they offer is subject to depreciation or the wear and tear of the items, and the airline's maximum liability limits as stated in their contract of carriage.
Additionally, the airline is required to reimburse you for any baggage fees you paid at check-in.
In addition to locating your baggage if it's delayed, airlines are also required to compensate you for "reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses that may incur while your bags are delayed — subject to the maximum liability limits."
However, it's your responsibility to file a claim with the airline and keep on top of it until the issue is resolved. With Delta Airlines, through their Fly Delta app, you can submit your missing bag claim electronically and, using your bag tag number, keep tabs on the location of your luggage.
If your airline of choice doesn't offer electronic bag tracking, you can always purchase a luggage tracker. While some of their features and monthly service plan costs differ, popular brands such as Lugloc and Trakdot are designed to provide real-time updates on your bag's location.
If damage to your baggage occurs while under the airline’s care, you're entitled to reimbursement for any damage to the bag's contents. Refer to your airline's contract of carriage to determine if there are any items they won't cover, such as cash or perishables.
Additionally, the airline is required to repair your bag or provide compensation if it's determined the bag is beyond repair (subject to the maximum liability limit or the total amount an airline is responsible for).
While these general policies apply to both domestic and international travel, the Montreal Convention treaty also offers further protections to passengers while traveling internationally. According to international standards, the airline “is liable for damage sustained in case of, destruction or loss of, or of damage to, checked baggage." However, the Montreal Convention’s maximum liability limit is around $1,600, while for domestic travel the limit is $3,500.
Disinsection, the process of spraying or treating an airplane cabin with pesticides — either before boarding, while passengers are onboard or during mid-flight — is meant to prevent the proliferation of diseases spread by insects such as malaria, yellow fever or zika.
In November of 1995, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report in favor of disinsection, stating that "when needed, (disinsection) would continue to prevent the spread of insects and if performed appropriately it would not present a risk to human health and to the environment."
However, in 2005, the WHO published a follow-up report on the safety of pyrethroids, the only WHO-approved pesticide for disinsection, prompting the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC to issue a warning. According to the research, continued exposure to pyrethroids can cause "headaches, dizziness, nausea, respiratory symptoms, skin and eye irritation.” Over the years, crew members exposed to pyrethroids have reported these symptoms.
To date, aircraft disinsection is permitted by international law, but there are still too many gaps in the available research to determine if the practice is hazardous to passengers health. If you're concerned for yourself or your family, it's best to contact your airline directly or refer to their contract of carriage to learn more about their disinsection policy.
What to Do Next
Understanding your passenger rights before booking your flight can certainly empower you with confidence should you lose your baggage or end up stuck on the tarmac. However, it's easy to get distracted when the excitement and anticipation of an upcoming adventure take over.
If you do experience airline trouble on your journey, remember to first consult the Department of Transportation website for domestic flight rules and regulations or the Montreal Convention for international travel. Always cross-check your information against your airline's contract of carriage. And when dealing with an airline representative in person or over the phone, be sure to get their full name and jot down any notes you think may help boost your case.
Finally, if your efforts for compensation or accommodation continue to go unanswered, let the DOT know by filing a claim, or recruit help from a passenger advocacy group like the Family Travel Organization or Flyersrights.org.
Finally, no matter what happens, remember to remain calm. The clearer your head is, the more successful you will be in advocating for your rights as an airline consumer.