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Goodbye, Travel Protections: Why ‘Rule 240’ Is Headed for Oblivion

“Rule 240,” long hailed as a major protection for air travelers, seems headed for airline oblivion. One reader recently asked about the current status: “Back in the late ’90s, I remember reading something about a ‘Rule 240’ that required an airline experiencing a major delay or cancellation to put you on another airline if that line could get you to your destination sooner. Is that still accurate after all of the airline bailouts, rule changes, and new legislation? And are airlines still required to have a copy of this rule at every gate or ticket counter?”

The quick answers: A few airlines still operate under the original Rule 240 formula, others formerly did but no longer do, and still others never did. Yes, airlines are still required to have a copy of their “contract of carriage,” which incorporates either Rule 240 or a substitute, available for traveler scrutiny—but it’s not always easy to find a copy at the airport.

Never a true “rule”

Widespread confusion over Rule 240 is no surprise. Start with the fact that it never was a government-imposed rule, as we generally interpret that straightforward word. Instead, during the era of regulation and immediately after, the U.S. government required all airlines to submit tariffs containing fares, fare conditions, and a whole bunch of other stuff about what they would and would not do in a wide range of circumstances. And, in the old standardized tariff system, paragraph 240 of every line’s tariff dealt with airline responsibilities in the event of delay or cancellation. Each “rule” was always self-imposed; each airline was free to set those conditions, but then had to abide by them.

In the regulated era, almost all airlines had interline agreements, so they all, uniformly, agreed to transfer a delayed traveler to another airline provided the second airline could get the traveler to his/her destination sooner. When an airline agent didn’t volunteer such a switch during a delay, we travel writers urged travelers to insist on a “Rule 240” transfer.

Now, however, airlines no longer file domestic tariffs. Instead, they spell out their responsibilities in a “contract of carriage.” That document actually forms the basis of the legal contract between airline and passenger. It covers much of the stuff that was formerly in tariffs, including how airlines handle delays (as well as lost baggage, shipment of pets, and other details). In addition, the legacy (pre-deregulation major) lines volunteered to post “customer service plans” or equivalent, containing some of the basics from the contract of carriage, in ordinary language rather than legalese. Most airlines now post both their contract of carriage and customer service plans on their websites, although both are sometimes hard to find.

Who does, who doesn’t

Some airlines still employ the original paragraph 240 language while others do not.

  • Alaska and Continental retain close to the original paragraph 240 language. Presumably, a delayed traveler on either airline can still demand a transfer to another carrier—as long as the second airline has an interline agreement with the first airline.
  • Delta says it transfers travelers to other airlines, but only “at our sole discretion.” In effect, you can ask, but you can’t demand.
  • America West, American, Northwest, United, and US Airways say they’ll transfer you to another airline only if they can’t provide a seat on one of their own flights—without specifying a time limit for finding you a seat on one of their flights.
  • JetBlue and Southwest, which never did employ the original paragraph 240, promise only to put you on another of their own flights. Other, smaller lines generally do the same.

In all cases, you have the option of a full refund.

Dealing with delay

Obviously, the days of routine, mandatory transfers are over. If your flight is delayed on one of the legacy lines (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, US Airways) or a smaller line that maintains interline agreements (Alaska, America West), you can certainly ask for a transfer. According to their current contracts, Alaska and Continental should be required to provide that transfer (Continental limits transfers to cases where the time difference would exceed two hours). The other legacy lines may transfer you, but they may also refuse—all you can do is ask. And if your delay is on JetBlue, Southwest, or one of several smaller lines, you’re probably stuck waiting for the next available seat on that same line, or a refund.

If you aren’t sure, by all means ask for a copy of either the contract of carriage, customer service plan, or both. However, the government rules are pretty loose about just where and when an airline has to show you those documents: “Available to travelers” can be interpreted to be something less than “available at every airport.”

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