Flight cancellations and delays have become increasingly common over the past few years. Dealing with issues while traveling is never fun, and the atmosphere in a busy airport doesn’t help. But when you encounter problems, your rights as a passenger won’t be found in consumer-friends state laws, they will be found within international treaties, federal statutes, and other regulations the average person has never dealt with.
According to Alexander Anolik, a veteran travel and tourism lawyer, there has been a lack of enforcement of federal law and not enough protection for the consumer when it comes to Passenger Rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently implemented rules to help make sure that all passengers have basic protections while traveling. As a consumer, knowing what these regulations are can help make sure you are protected if an issue with the airline should arise.
LOST, DAMAGED & DELAYED LUGGAGE
Because everyone today travels with smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other electronic devices, losing your luggage no longer means being without clean clothes and toiletries. It could mean the loss of thousands of dollars. Before the DOT stepped in, many carriers were enforcing unreasonably low limitations of liability for lost, damaged, or delayed luggage, which ranged from $500 to $1,000. Many carriers also included clauses in their Contracts of Carriage that didn’t cover liability for common items such as cash, computers, telephones, cameras, and medicine, and passengers would need to have quite a bit of legal knowledge in order to know what clauses were in place and how minimal the protection for passengers was.
In order to make sure consumers were always protects when it came to their luggage, in 2010 the DOT issued a rule that required carriers to take responsibility for at least $3,000 (to be adjusted annually for inflation) on domestic routes, and invalidated the the airlines’ exclusion clauses for both domestic and international flights in order to make sure customers were compensated for all items lost in their luggage.
If an airline carrier does not comply with these rules, the DOT can impose fines of $27,500 per incident, although some carriers will still try and inform frustrated passengers that they will not pay for devices in lost luggage. If this occurs, the consumer should file an online complaint with the DOT as soon as possible. While this does not guarantee compensations, it can help get the carrier to comply faster to compensate the customer. Unfortunately, you might not be able to get the compensation you need while flying on an international route, which is beyond the reach of the DOT rules. For international flights, the compensation given is even lower and might not be worth the value of the lost items.
DELAYS AND CANCELLATIONS
There is no U.S. law that requires air carriers to provide meal vouchers or hotel accommodations, and they are allowed to delay or cancel a flight with practically no consequences. But while there is no official law that requires some form of compensation or aid in the event of a delayed or cancelled flight, most carriers do have protections listed under their Contracts of Carriage. When comparing flights, don’t just look at price, make sure you find out what each airline will do in the event that your travel plans are disrupted. Will they provide accommodations and help you rebook your flight free of charge, or will they leave you on your own to figure it out?
Under EU law, consumers have a little more protection than in the US. Passengers are entitled to reimbursement for reasonable meals and refreshments, as well as two free telephone calls, emails, or faxes when there is a sufficient delay. When there is a delay of five hours or more, passengers can get a full reimbursement of the cost of the flight ticket as well as the return flight. If the flight is cancelled, the passenger can receive a cash payment based on the length of the flight.
The DOT has also put into place rules in the event that there is a tarmac delay. In order to make sure the passengers onboard are being kept informed and taken care of, they enacted regulations to limit the impact of such delays. Passengers are entitled to a notification every 30 minutes on the status of the delay, an opportunity to deplane if the carrier voluntarily chooses to open the aircraft door, snack and water after two hours, and operable lavatories. Passengers must also be allowed to deplane after a three hour tarmac delay on domestic flights, and after four hours on an international flight. If the airline does not comply, they can get heavily penalized. There are, of course, exceptions for air traffic control and issues of safety and security, but by enforcing these regulations and penalties, the DOT hopes to avoid tarmac delay horror stories in the future.
DENIED BOARDING ON OVERBOOKED FLIGHTS
After a failed U.S. Supreme Court case against an airline by Ralph Nadar in 1972, a precedent was established that allowed carriers to overbook flights as long as they gave passengers sufficient notice. If you are bumped from a flight and are involuntarily denied boarding, you are entitled to immediate payment.
For domestic flights where there is an hour or less of an arrival delay, there is no compensation. If there is a 1 – 2 hour arrival delay, you can get 100% of your one-way fare (max $650), and for an arrival delay of over 2 hours, you can get 400% of your one-way fare (max $1,300).
For international flights where there is an hour or less of an arrival delay, there is no compensation. If there is a 1 – 4 hour arrival delay, you can get 200% of your one-way fare (max $650), and for an arrival delay of over 4 hours, you can get 400% of your one-way fare (max $1,300).
Carriers can give passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding the payment in cash or check, but many prefer to offer payment in the form of tickets or vouchers, which can sometimes work in the favor of the passenger as they can sometimes exceed the value of the cash payment. They will also normally offer vouchers for any volunteers, the the amount they offer can vary.
In the EU, the compensation is different. A carrier must compensate a volunteer for the full cost of the ticket and provide a return flight, and if a passenger is denied boarding involuntarily, the carrier must treat the passenger as though the flight was cancelled, entitling them to reimbursement of the ticket price, rerouting, meals and refreshments, a hotel room, and the cash payment.
WHEN PROBLEMS ARISE
Passengers can’t sue the airlines themselves and must rely on the DOT to enforce the regulations. There is no private right of action for violation of the regulations, and the penalties paid out stay with the government and aren’t passed to the injured consumer. Therefore, some attorney’s have tried to work around it by using state consumer protection laws, but that doesn’t always work because of federal rules that completely prohibit states from enforcing any law related to rates, routes, or services offered by an airline carrier.
But the good news is that consumers and their attorneys can still have a case against an airline if there is a breach of contract. On most cases, passengers who have been harmed can get money back in small claims courts for breach of contract, but it won’t be what you hope for. You’ll only be compensated for the cost of the ticket, and not the court and attorney expenses or any emotional distress.
The best thing to do to prevent any real damage while traveling, is to do your research with each carrier’s Contracts of Carriage, which they are required to post on their websites in a place that is easy to find. Familiarize yourself with the contract, what is required of them, and what your rights are as a passenger. If possible, print a copy of the Contracts of Carriage and bring them with you on your flight. If a problem should arise and a counter agent doesn’t comply, you can have proof of what you are entitled to. It’s also important to submit complaints to the DOT if you suspect a carrier has not complied with a regulation. The more airlines realize they can’t get away with bending the rules, the more protection passengers will have in the future.