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Deregulation didn't kill "Rule 240" completely, although it's on life support. It's the provision in airline contracts that specifies what an airline will and will not do if your flight is delayed and/or canceled. Formerly, it committed each airline to transfer you to another line if the second line could get you to your destination earlier than the original line. Current provisions are weaker than they were before deregulation, but they never totally went away, and some folks are now trying to revive the rule to full strength.
In pre-deregulation days, all the big U.S. airlines adhered uniformly to this practice. Even then, though, travelers faced some confusion over Rule 240, starting with the fact that it never was a government-imposed "rule," as we generally interpret that straightforward word. Instead, the U.S. government required all airlines to submit tariffs containing fares, fare conditions, baggage rules, and such, in consistent format, and paragraph 240 of every line's tariff dealt with the airline's responsibilities in the event of delay or cancellation. Airline agents or on-the-site supervisors could easily "endorse" ticket coupons from their line over to another. If an airline agent didn't volunteer such a switch during a delay, travel writers urged travelers to insist on a Rule 240 transfer.
In today's deregulated marketplace, airline rules formerly in the tariffs are now contained in their contracts of carriage, the legal contracts between airlines and passengers. And different airlines treat possible transfer to another line in different ways.
- Alaska, Continental, Frontier, and Hawaiian retain close to the original paragraph 240 concept. On a delayed flight, you can still ask for a transfer to another line, as long as the second line has seats and an interline agreement with the original line. However, you have to ask; the line seldom volunteers it, and a transfer may be subject to a minimum delay of two or three hours.
- American, Delta, United, US Airways, and Virgin America say they can transfer you to another line, but only at their sole discretion, and only to airlines with which they have agreements. In effect, you can ask, but you can't demand.
- JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and some smaller lines never employed the original paragraph 240; they promise only to put you on another of their own flights.
If you're caught in a delay, you need to know your line's contract provisions and you need to know which, if any, has available seats on flights that can get you to your destination before your original line can. If your line's contract requires transfer to another line, you can demand it; with the other big lines you can ask but without any assurance of success. And with the smaller lines, you're stuck. Keep in mind that having the "right" to a transfer means nothing unless some other line has available seats.
Whether or not you get a transfer, you always have the question of whether you really want the standard "our next available flight" offer. Maybe you'd rather go back to bed and start over the next day, or scrub the trip entirely if the delay causes you to miss an event. As far as I can tell, most airlines will cooperate with most reasonable rescheduling requests. And if nothing looks good, you can ask your line for a full refund.
This roundup of Rule 240 provisions doesn't present anything brand new, but the topic arose, in part, because a consumer advocate has just petitioned the Department of Transportation to make it a real rule, applicable uniformly to all lines. If you'd like to weigh in, you can submit an official comment to DOT. Log onto the government's Regulations website, enter "DOT-OST-2011-0079" in the Docket search box, and then click on a comment button. Whether you regard such a rule as a major consumer benefit or just more unwarranted government interference with private business, make sure your opinion is heard.