Fliers' Rights? You Have Fewer Than You Think

Randolph Jones Sr. travels more than 100,000 miles a year. In that time, he's had his bags delayed three times and one bag damaged.

Airplane on runway
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Airplane on runway

He's been offered vouchers to take later flights because his was oversold. He's missed connecting flights at least five times.

Jones, a management consultant from Marietta, Ga., realizes much can go wrong when traveling by air. But for a long time he hasn't bothered to look at an airline's contract of carriage — the fine print on an airline's website that details what responsibility the airline has to a passenger when a flight is canceled or delayed, when luggage is lost and when there aren't enough seats for everyone on a plane.

He knows the contracts work in the airlines' favor. "It basically says they are responsible for little, and if they fail it is, 'Oh well,' " he says.

Although the federal government has increased protection for passengers in the last two years, the legal fine print in airlines' contracts of carriage really spells out the agreement you've got with the carrier when you buy a ticket. In a nutshell: The airlines promise to get you from one place to another — but they don't guarantee they'll do so on time.

Many people taking to the skies this summer for vacations don't even know that contracts of carriage exist. Although located on each airline's website, they're not always prominently displayed. On Delta Air Lines' website, for instance, you have to scroll down to the bottom of the home page and click on the link for "Legal."

If travelers do find the contracts, they typically don't have the patience to go through pages and pages of legalese, or find that it's too often skewed against them. "They're written by airline lawyers for airlines," says Robert Mann, founder of airline consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co.

The Transportation Department has tipped the scales back toward consumers by ruling:

•Airlines can no longer let domestic flights linger on airport tarmacs for longer than three hours or international flights for longer than four hours. If passengers are stuck on tarmacs for more than two hours, airlines have to give them food and water and access to bathrooms.

•Airlines are required to refund baggage fees if the bag is lost.

•Advertised airfares must include all government taxes and other fees once hidden behind asterisks or in footnotes. All baggage fees must also be included when you book and pay for a ticket online.

•Customers can change their reservations without having to pay re-booking fees within 24 hours of making them.

•Previously, if a flight was oversold and you were involuntarily kept off the plane, you'd get up to twice the value of the one-way price of the ticket, up to $800. Now you can get as much as four times the value, or $1,300.

"We've never had the (Transportation Department) taking on the carriers for consumer protection as they did the last year," says Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco-based travel lawyer.

But are the new protections enough?

Consumer complaints against U.S. airlines are on the rise. In April of this year, there were 865 complaints filed with the Transportation Department against U.S. airlines, up from 745 in April 2011.

"I think the one clause in most contracts that consumers should take to heart is the one that reads, basically, 'schedules are not guaranteed,' " says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. "Airlines can change flight times, cancel flights, eliminate routes at will, and there's nothing the consumer can do other than, in some cases, ask for a refund of the fare paid."

Fliers in Europe Better Off

Historically, the European Union has been the world leader in air passenger rights, enacting a number of laws that protect travelers, Anolik says.

If a flight is delayed in Europe, for instance, passengers for the most part are entitled to reimbursement for meals, refreshments, telephone calls, e-mails and faxes.

Unless the carrier can prove that a cancellation was caused by extraordinary circumstances, the airline must compensate the passenger financially plus offer to pay for hotels, food and phone calls, among other things.

In the United States, it's up to the airline to decide how to deal with delays, diversions and cancellations.

"In the U.S., it is effectively a free-for-all," says Andrew Thomas, author of Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service and Safety. "Passengers are at the mercy of the carrier. The airlines have blocked any substantial attempt by the government to make it similar to the EU."

That wasn't always the case. Before 1978, when U.S. airlines were regulated by the government, there was a "Rule 240" that required carriers to put a passenger on another flight or another airline if they were to blame for a delayed or canceled flight.

Ask about Rule 240 now, and you get a variety of answers.

"While the verbiage Rule 240 isn't used prevalently anymore, the guidelines are still in place," says Todd Lehmacher, a spokesman for US Airways .

The airline will try to re-book a customer, even on another carrier that it has a ticketing agreement with. But that, he says, is "dependent on that carrier having space on their flight and a willingness of that carrier to 'share' the available space with US Airways."

He notes that Southwest , Allegiant Air , Spirit Airlines , and JetBlue Airways do not have agreements with other carriers.

Whether customers get amenities such as vouchers for hotels depends on where the flight originated, their frequent-flier status, their class of service, the length of the disruption and whether the disruption was within the airline's control.

In other words, if you're in first class and you're flying out of Europe, you are likely to get a hotel room. If you're in coach flying out of Philadelphia, you're probably going to have to fend for yourself.

If a flight is delayed or canceled, Southwest Airlines, meanwhile, will "at the request of a passenger with a confirmed ticket" rebook the person on the next available Southwest flight at no additional charge, or refund the unused portion of the ticket. There is no re-booking on other carriers.

Virgin America does not use Rule 240 for delays caused by the airline. "However, as an airline that prides itself on its guest service, we handle such situations on a case-by-case basis with a focus on the individual guest experience," says Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for Virgin America.

Marianne Lindsey, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines , says the carrier still uses Rule 240, and in the event of a delay or cancellation, even bumps passengers to a higher class on Alaska Air or on another carrier if that's the only seat available on the next flight.

But if a delay, diversion or cancellation is caused by a so-called force majeure, in legal parlance, the airline typically doesn't have to do much for the passenger. Events deemed outside of the airline's control usually include weather, earthquakes and wars. But over the years, the definition has expanded. Southwest, for instance, also defines "mechanical difficulties by entities other than Carrier" as an act of God.

Some consumer advocates question such definitions, but Mike Boyd, president of airline consulting firm Boyd Group International, says airlines are not always in the wrong.

"When you decide to fly, you bear some responsibility for the inconvenience that can bring," Boyd says. "You're putting yourself in a metal tube. … It's not entirely an airlines' fault when a thunderstorm diverts them to Dubuque."

Airlines Are Trying

George Novak, director of Safety, Borders and Security for InterVISTAS Consulting, says airlines actually do what they can to keep customers from filing complaints against them with the Transportation Department.

"They do want return customers," he says. "They don't throw around free tickets like they used to, but they do try to work with passengers for the most part."

And sometimes, they admit when they've made a mistake.

Nick van Terheyden says he recently missed his connection in Charlotte because his US Airways flight out of Washington's Dulles Airport took off too late.

There was no point in catching a later flight to his final destination in Roanoke, Va., because there was no way he'd make his meeting. So he marched to customer service and asked for a return flight to Dulles — plus a full refund.

He got the return flight but not the full refund. Instead, the agent reimbursed him for the unused legs of the trip. "It was better than nothing, but what I would have expected/wanted was a full refund," says the Laytonsville, Md., resident.

Van Terheyden, chief medical officer for a health care consulting firm, admits he has not read US Airways' contract of carriage. But even if he had, he might not have been able to decipher what he was entitled to. The contract does include a section on refunds, but it doesn't specifically address van Terheyden's situation.

"We don't spell out every single permutation but give clear guidance," says US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr.

If a passenger misses a connection due to a delay or cancellation and is returned to the origin city by the carrier, the airline deems it as a "trip in vain" or "futile trip" and refunds the full ticket value, says US Airways spokesman Lehmacher.

He had not reviewed all the specific details of van Terheyden's case but says "that airline employees, too, are human and sometimes we do make mistakes — especially when you have a delayed or canceled flight and our employees are trying to give each customer the attention they deserve."

Van Terheyden says if any money is owed to him, he'd rather have the airline donate it to charity.

What to Do If It Happens to You

Is your flight delayed, canceled? There are some steps to take to assess your rights and options in dealing with the hassle. Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com. recommends:

•If your flight is delayed and the agent at the counter says you're not entitled to food vouchers or other compensation, look up the airline's contract of carriage on your smartphone or laptop, or ask someone with a laptop to do it for you. The quickest way to find it is to Google it.

•Speak up. If you determine that you are entitled to a refund or other compensation for a delay or cancellation, request it specifically. Some airlines are not obliged to give a refund unless asked.

•Pay attention to what other airlines are doing. If your flight was disrupted because of bad weather, you have no recourse. If you're told weather is causing your cancellation or delay, make sure other carriers aren't still flying to the same destination. Sometimes airlines cancel flights because they are under-booked. If you suspect that to be the case, ask for the appropriate compensation.

•Look at other options. If your carrier's flights are already booked, request to fly on a competing carrier. Some airlines allow it. Pull up a list of other carrier's schedules while waiting in line.

•Stay calm. Getting angry at the ticketing agent won't make him or her want to help you.