What airlines owe you when something goes wrong

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Photo: iStockphoto
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 4, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, baggage, insurance, Jessica Labrencis.

Murphy's Law could have been written with today's air travel industry in mind. From flight delays and oversold flights to missed connections and lost bags, it's the rare traveler who has the pleasure of a smooth airport experience. So what can you do when things go wrong? Use this guide to find out what the airlines owe you when something goes wrong.

Flight delays

Delays are the most common hassle for air travelers. Whether caused by weather, air-traffic control issues, or mechanical problems, many, many flights are affected by delays each day. Unfortunately, a carrier isn't required to compensate delayed passengers, especially if the delay is caused by factors beyond the airline's control.

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If the delay is caused by a mechanical problem, you can try to secure a new flight by calling the airline's reservations phone number, but make sure you won't be penalized for changing your flight before you agree to take a different flight. Some airlines may pass out snacks and beverages during especially long delays, but they aren't federally required to do so.

Bumping

You've probably heard gate-area announcements offering free tickets and cash to passengers willing to take later flights. Such announcements are the result of an airline overselling a flight, a common practice in the industry.

Before passengers can be denied boarding involuntarily, or bumped, the airline must ask for volunteers. These volunteers are typically reimbursed for a portion of their ticket, and offered a free-flight voucher. Don't accept a voucher before asking about any restrictions it may have, such as an expiration date, blackout dates, or advance-purchase requirements.

If not enough passengers agree to be voluntarily bumped, the airline will begin to bump passengers involuntarily. The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates compensation for such situations. Currently, you aren't entitled to compensation if the new flight will get you to your destination within an hour of the scheduled time. But, if you arrive within two hours on a domestic flight or within four hours on an international flight, the airline owes you an amount equal to your one-way fare, with a maximum of $200. If you'll arrive more than two hours late on a domestic flight or more than four hours late on an international flight, or if the airline fails to make substitute arrangements for you, the airline must pay 200 percent of your fare, up to $400.

You can also choose to make your own arrangements to your destination, and request a refund for the flight from which you were bumped.

JetBlue goes beyond the DOT's requirements, and offers $1,000 to involuntarily bumped passengers.

Cancellations

If your airline cancels your flight, it will automatically re-book you on a new one. However, the new flight could be on a different day, or at a radically different time, than the original flight. If you deem the replacement flight unacceptable, some airlines will refund your money, even for nonrefundable tickets. Others are less generous.

Cancellation and refund policies vary by carrier and by situation, so you'll have to check with your airline to find out its specific rules.

Missed connections

You won't receive any compensation for a missed connection, though airlines may offer varying degrees of assistance, depending on the situation. If you miss a connection because of mechanical problems, flight delays, or something else within the airline's control—or alternatively, because of inclement weather—the carrier should re-book you on its next available flight. Should the next open flight land a day or two later, some airlines will provide accommodations or meal vouchers, though it is completely voluntary.

If you miss a connection due to something within your control, your airline may help you rebook, but it isn't required to do so. Keep this in mind before booking an itinerary on two separate tickets. For example, if you fly from San Diego to Columbus on Skybus, and miss your Delta flight from Columbus to New York, neither Skybus nor Delta is required to assist you because the two carriers don't have an interline agreement.

Lost luggage

Airlines have specific limits of liability for lost baggage. For domestic flights, an airline will pay a maximum of $3,000 per passenger. Pricey items such as electronics or jewelry are unlikely to be covered, so avoid packing anything valuable in a checked bag.

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