Transportation Law

Trip Adviser

Knowing passengers’ rights—and how to transact with airline agents—could make a big difference in what happens to you or your clients when things go awry at the airport.

By Kent C. Krause

Handing ticket to airline attendant

When a blizzard dumped 12 inches of snow on Detroit Metropolitan Airport in late 1999, Northwest Airlines officials decided to continue launching flights into the airport from all over the world. This resulted in dozens of Northwest planes, full of holiday travelers, remaining stuck in the snowbound taxiways and tarmacs for up to 10 hours with no food or water and numerous clogged toilets.

Based on news accounts, at least one passenger went into diabetic shock, others complained of heart attack symptoms, and Northwest’s own pilots were trying to contact airline officials, including one call to the home phone of Northwest’s CEO and another where a captain threatened to taxi to a cargo carrier’s ramp and deploy the plane’s emergency slides to let passengers off.

Of course, Northwest didn’t hold exclusive rights to this sort of bad behavior over the years. On Christmas Eve in 1997, United Airlines stranded 168 passengers for six hours in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A half-hour American Airlines flight to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, became a nine-hour nightmare for passengers trapped aboard the plane at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because of winter weather and mechanical problems. Passengers cursed, kicked seats, and raided the liquor cabinet in protest of their seemingly endless delay. United Airlines experienced, on more than one occasion, computer glitches and extended website shutdowns after combining its reservation system with that of Continental Airlines when the two merged, resulting in numerous delays. In 2007 and again in 2011, JetBlue Airways confined passengers to delayed planes for hours. A recurrent theme in the reports for these various incidents is that passengers say they were never told why they couldn’t get off, were offered few updates about the flights’ statuses, and generally felt neglected.

Following these instances, pressure finally increased enough for lawmakers to act to formally require an airline passenger bill of rights. Notwithstanding the airline industry having been officially deregulated in the United States since 1978, all things related to fares, routes, and services remain governed by federal law (the Airline Deregulation Act), which preempts interference by states’ attorneys general. With the responsibility to convince airlines to do the right thing, Congress finally mandated that the U.S. Department of Transportation create regulations for the airlines that put in place passenger protections banning lengthy tarmac delays and requiring airlines to provide such things as reimbursements of baggage fees on lost bags, greater compensation for being involuntarily bumped from flights, and better disclosure of hidden fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, and advanced or upgraded seating.

All U.S. airlines are required to create and submit to DOT a document known as conditions of carriage or contract of carriage. This is often a multipage document that is incorporated into every purchased ticket and can be found on any airline’s website. The contract of carriage generally has provisions about its application to the purchased flight; definitions of terms used; reservation rules and policies; fares, ticketing rules, and policies; check-in requirements; acceptance of passengers, including persons with disabilities, children, and pets; baggage policies; international travel rules; service interruption; and miscellaneous information like claims procedures and choice of law provisions.

So what are some of the highlights of these new passenger protections? Well, first, to address the previous horror stories, DOT rules prohibit tarmac delays of more than three hours, with three strict exceptions related to safety, security, and air traffic control. International flights have a four-hour time limit for both U.S. and foreign carriers, with the same exceptions. Airlines are also required to provide adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment.

DOT also requires airlines to disclose mandatory taxes and fees in published airfares, so no more hiding in the fine print behind a few asterisks. If passengers book a ticket at least one week before departure, they are now entitled to cancel or change the reservation within 24 hours without penalty.

If, after booking, the airline changes routes turning a nonstop flight into one with several connections, passengers are entitled to “prompt” notification. An airline can unilaterally make such changes and is obligated only to provide a full refund without cancellation fees. Passengers, however, will be stuck with rebooking, which often can be more expensive. Likewise with schedule changes to different days or times—passengers are entitled only to a full refund but no other compensation. If they choose to rebook, passengers get stuck with any extra costs, whether that is a higher fare or an extra night at a hotel.

With airplanes fuller than ever and the federal government still allowing airlines to overbook their flights, getting bumped involuntarily or voluntarily is becoming more common. You likely have heard gate agents pleading for volunteers to give up their seats for later flights. Again, DOT has mandated a payment scale that depends on how long passengers are delayed from their originally scheduled arrival time. Often the airlines try to give vouchers for future travel in the amounts required, but passengers are entitled to be paid in cash.

Delays and cancellations are treated much like route and schedule changes. Usually, only a refund or rebooking is available, although there may be circumstances when the airline must provide hotel accommodations and meals. It is important to know the conditions or contract of carriage, which spell out which types of delays or cancellations are covered and which are not. As a general rule, weather-related delays and cancellations do not usually require the airline to accommodate passengers beyond rebooking. The rules require an airline only to put a passenger on its next flight with available seats, not necessarily the next flight, and not the next flight of a competitor. Each airline’s policies on this should be covered in the conditions of carriage.

So what if passengers make it to their destinations successfully but their bags do not? They must promptly notify the airlines’ baggage agents at the airport. If their bags are delayed, the airlines are obliged to deliver the bags to their owners. They may also provide certain basic needs, such as toiletries. Depending on the delay, passengers may be entitled to further reimbursement for necessary items. Lastly, if a bag is truly lost and never arrives, the airline is obliged to compensate the passenger up to several thousand dollars.

It is important for attorneys to know these passenger rights—for the benefit of any clients who might have had such issues and for attorneys themselves, who frequently travel by air. Here are some practical ways you can help yourself when things get a little rough at the airport.

1. Assertiveness is key. As a matter of policy, some airlines cater only to those who make specific requests for information or assistance when flights are delayed or canceled. Be polite but persistent.

2. Don’t assume you are not entitled to some help— such as lodging, meals, or transportation—from your airline simply because none is offered. Ask the gate agent. Again, be polite but assertive.

3. Each airline’s “contract” with passengers is available (or should be) at ticket counters and customer relations offices. If you don’t feel like you are getting the right answer or just don’t like the answer, ask the gate agent to produce a copy and you may get the relief you need. If not, you can pull a copy up on your laptop or cellphone.

4. In the event that a flight is delayed or canceled, extra amenities are often offered to unaccompanied minors, elderly passengers, and those with disabilities. However, airlines seek to limit their liability by specifying what they will not compensate you for within the conditions.

5. If you are not satisfied with how you were treated by the airline in resolving any of these problems, start by writing the airline’s headquarters. If that doesn’t get a response, consider filing a complaint with DOT, especially if it relates to safety or lost luggage.

Hopefully, all of your travel will be through clear skies and smooth air. But if you run into turbulence, you are now equipped to assert your rights. TBJ

Kent C. Krause KENT C. KRAUSE is a Dallas-based attorney practicing aviation law with the firm of Craddock Davis & Krause, co-author of a three-volume work titled Aviation Tort and Regulatory Law(Thomson Reuters), past chair of the State Bar of Texas Aviation Law Section, and an adjunct professor of aviation law at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.

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