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Stranded? Frequent Flyers Have Rights!

On Frequent Flyer Miles
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 1, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: frequent flyer, On Frequent Flyer Miles, Tim Winship.

After a prolonged slump in the wake of 9/11, air travel has staged a resounding comeback.

While the industry remains in turmoil, racking up numbing losses and keeping consumers nervously monitoring the media for breaking news of bankruptcies and liquidation, the airlines are operating a record number of flights, and planes are running fuller than ever. During 2004, the nation's 18 largest airlines operated 7.1 million domestic flights—a 9.9 percent increase over 2003 and by far the most flights ever.

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A natural byproduct of the rise in traffic is increased strain on the commercial aviation system, resulting in more flight delays, more cancellations, and more bumped passengers.

Mileage program members heading to the airport with their frequent flyer award tickets in hand face the same odds as paid ticket holders of experiencing service disruptions. And as a general rule, both types of travelers will receive equal treatment in the event of flight irregularities. However, in the event that flights are indeed canceled, or overbooked, award ticket holders should know what their rights are.

Flight delays

The most common flight irregularity is the delay. The causes of delays, and their duration, vary and affect the airlines' responses.

In cases where the delay is caused by a force majeure (weather, "act of God," strike, war, or other uncontrollable factor), airlines typically commit to no more than accommodating the passenger on a later flight or refunding the price of the ticket. In the case of an award ticket, the price is in miles rather than in dollars, so the refund would consist of redepositing miles in the member's account.

When delays are for reasons within their control, airlines again will arrange for alternative transportation or refund the unused portion of the ticket. If the delay is prolonged, they will provide such amenities as phone cards, meal vouchers, and hotel accommodations (when an overnight stay is required) to both revenue and award passengers alike.

Canceled flights

Worse than a delay to most travelers is an outright flight cancellation.

Because a cancellation is, in effect, just an extended delay, the rules covering reaccommodation and compensation are basically the same. Again, the airlines will rebook customers on later flights, or they will refund the value of any unused portion of travelers' tickets, in dollars or miles, if alternative transportation cannot be secured. And, if circumstances warrant, the airlines may spring for phone calls, meals, and hotels.

Denied boarding (aka bumping)

Denied boarding is potentially every bit as frustrating as a flight disruption. But unlike delays and cancellations, ticketed passengers who are denied boarding can generally expect to be compensated for their inconvenience.

A passenger holding a confirmed reservation may be denied boarding (or bumped, in the vernacular) when the airline sells more seats than the aircraft can accommodate. Such overbooking is the airlines' way of maximizing per-flight revenue, given the probability that some ticketed passengers will fail to show up for their flights. When an airline overestimates the number of no-shows and sells too many extra seats to compensate, the result is more passengers than there are available seats. Some passengers must be turned away.

Before airlines decide which customers to bump, they are required by the DOT to ask for volunteers: travelers who are willing to take a later flight. If the flight is still oversold after the volunteers' seats have been released, the airline will be forced to deny boarding to additional passengers on an involuntary basis.

Normally, carriers use a "last-in/first-out" rule to decide which passengers to bump. In other words, those who checked in latest at the airport will be put on the top of the list to be bumped. Other factors may also be considered, including ticket type and elite status, when a tie-breaker is necessary. But in most cases, a paying passenger who checked in late will be bumped before an award ticket holder who arrived at the airport early.

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