Travel Secrets: Understand Your Flight Rights

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Travel Secrets: Understand Your Flight Rights

You’re standing in the middle of the airport with the word “Cancelled” flashing on the big rotating flight board in front of you. What now?

Travelers this holiday season will ask that question as delays and cancellations become more routine and luggage fails to appear on carousels. Even frequent flyers can feel lost when things go awry in that alternative universe known as “the airport.”

While our rights as air passengers shouldn’t be a secret, policies that vary from airline to airline as well as by country of departure and arrival result in confusion about what to expect when issues arise.

It is important to note that contrary to popular myth, relatively few air passengers by percentage encounter problems. According to U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT,) through September of 2016: 99.7 percent of passengers had their bags properly handled, U.S. airlines completed 98.8 percent of their flights and 81.1 percent arrived on time. Additionally, less than than one passenger per 10,000 was involuntarily denied boarding, says Airlines for America spokesperson Kathy Allen.

Even if chances are slim, when you are the one in 10,000, knowing your flight rights is key. For advice, we turned to experts including Allen; Paul Hudson, president of and member of FAA’s Rulemaking Advisory Committee; and Daniel Tulbovich, co-founder of
RewardExpert as well as industry resources such as DOT’s flight rights guidelines.

Experts agree the biggest mistake passengers make is not being informed. “Many people take the hand that’s dealt to them without pushing and standing up for their rights,” says Tulbovich. “But if they took the time to understand the options that are available to them, they could end up making lemonade out of lemons and even receive some compensation.”

Please, fellow traveler, find our recipe for lemonade below.

Delays and Cancellations

“Airlines share the same goal as the traveling public: to get them and their baggage to their destination safely and on time,” says Allen. However, airlines do not guarantee schedules.

When a flight is delayed more than 30 minutes, an airline must inform passengers, Hudson says, but that’s as far as regulation goes for domestic delays. For cancelled flights, most airlines follow the standard operating practice of rebooking passengers on the first available flight to a destination.

Hudson cautions that airlines are under no obligation to book passengers on another airline’s flight, even if the best option. Yet it never hurts to suggest a suitable alternate flight.

Passengers do have the right to obtain a refund—even with a non-refundable ticket—when a flight is cancelled, making another form of transportation or opt out possible.

DOT says airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delays or cancellations, thus compensation varies. Any offers usually involve vouchers for future travel or reward points and depend on whether the cause was within an airline’s control, such as mechanical issues.

Consult your carrier’s website for specific policy. Smarter Travel provides a handy guide.

Bumps and Downgrades

According to DOT, most airlines oversell flights to compensate for no-shows. Overbooking is not against regulation; however, passengers who check in on time, then get involuntarily bumped due to a full flight have a right to compensation.

Airlines are required to seek volunteers willing to take a different flight, (usually in exchange for flight vouchers, points, or upgrades,) before bumping passengers involuntarily.

DOT does not mandate compensation for volunteers, but does require airlines to make clear chances of involuntarily bumping from a new flight. Ask about restrictions and black out dates as well as hotel and meal vouchers when an overnight is required.

If involuntarily bumped, a written statement describing carrier policy for who does and doesn’t get on an oversold flight, (last to check-in is often first to go,) must be provided as well as compensation.

“If the airline arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to arrive within one hour of your original arrival, the airline owes you no compensation. If the alternative transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination two or more hours late, you are entitled to 400% of your fare, with a maximum of $1,350,” summarizes Hudson. “If between one and two hours, passengers are entitled to 200% with a maximum of $675.”

Airlines may offer vouchers for future flights; however, passengers are entitled to ask for direct payment instead.

What happens if you booked a direct flight and get re-routed on a multi-stop itinerary or splurged for first class and get downgraded to coach? Hudson says airlines are only obligated to get passengers to the destination. Request a voucher or miles to make a downgrade easier to swallow.

Grounded on the Tarmac

If your plane is stuck on the runway, the airline cannot keep you in the plane for longer than three hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights,” says Tulbovich. “You also have the right to complimentary food and water after two hours of waiting.”

DOT states that while an aircraft is on the tarmac, passengers must have access to bathrooms and medical attention, if needed. Exceptions can be made for safety, security, and air traffic control concerns.

Damaged and Lost

Federal regulations stipulate that passengers have a right to compensation for lost or damaged luggage; however, airlines have latitude when deciding the amount.

“By regulation, airlines can only limit their liability to $3,500 for domestic flights, $1,500 for international flights,” says Hudson. In addition, he says the Obama administration recently proposed a rule that would require airlines to refund fees for bags substantially delayed or lost.

Tulbovich adds, “In the past, many air carriers refused to compensate passengers for damage to parts of their luggage that are external or “stick out,” like zippers, handles, and wheels. However, in 2015 the DOT declared and re-confirmed that air carriers are violating federal regulation by limiting their liability in this regard.”

File a claim before leaving the terminal, even if the airline says the bag is in transit. If a bag moves from delayed to permanently lost, more forms may be required. Failure to file or missing deadlines could invalidate the claim.

DOT also advises getting a direct contact number for follow up and confirming how found luggage will be delivered. Ask for details on what replacement necessities are covered.

Airlines aren’t in the habit of automatically paying the full amount of every claim. The information you provide will be used to estimate the value of belongings, so be specific. Yet, avoid exaggeration which can red-flag a claim. Don’t be afraid to counter offer, negotiation is key.


Begin with the airline and provide detailed information including names of employees, dates, flight numbers, and receipts. Per regulations, airlines must acknowledge a written complaint within 30 days and deliver a substantive response within 60 days.

“Like other businesses, airlines have a lot of discretion in how they respond to problems,” states DOT. “While you do have certain rights as a passenger, your demands for compensation will probably be subject to negotiation and the kind of action you get often depends in large part on the way you go about complaining.”

If an airline does not resolve your issue, file a complaint with DOT. You can also visit or call toll-free at 1-877-FLYERS6 (359-3776.)

*All the Information above applies primarily to domestic carriers and itineraries. Greater regulation is in place when traveling in the EU or with an EU carrier. Consult this overview of European air passenger rights for details.

Image: bahtiar1070, CC-BY

Jess Simpson is likely in an airport at this moment gazing skyward toward a board desperately trying to recall her own advice. Follow her travel secrets and tales at Paste as well as on Facebook and Instagram.

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