US Airways will give each passenger from Flight 1549 $5,000 to "assist with immediate needs," and will reimburse passengers for the cost of their ticket. In a letter (.pdf) to customers, the airline cautions that it may take weeks for the passengers' personal effects to be salvaged and returned, and some items may be unrecoverable.
It's common for airlines to offer payment to customers following accidents. USA Today also points out, however, that such payments do not always deter passengers from filing lawsuits. It will be interesting to see if anyone from Flight 1549 takes US Airways to court, especially in light of emerging reports detailing previous engine malfunctions on the plane that went down.
But while the choice was an easy one for US Airways, the decision underscores the difficulty of getting compensation from an airline. Basically, it takes an extreme case like that of Flight 1549 to motivate an airline enough to voluntarily compensate its passengers. As our own Ed Perkins notes, most delays and cancellations leave you with hardly any rights to compensation from your carrier. Travel insurance is a good way to protect yourself from significant monetary losses, but coverage policies can be confusing, so make sure you understand what's covered and what isn't. Since most of us will (hopefully) never experience a severe accident like Flight 1549, it's important to know what your options are in the event of a more likely travel disruption.
US Airways did the right thing by giving its customers cash to cover their losses and ease the stress of recovering from such a harrowing ordeal. That the airline moved quickly to assist its passengers is even more impressive.