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Air travelers have a few rights (but not many)

Many travelers seem to think that, in a dispute with an airline, they have certain “rights” or “entitlements,” that the airline has specified “obligations,” and that some set level and form of compensation is specified for each instance.

One reader recently asked, for example, “I’ve been waiting over six months for a refund due to me from British Airways. Are airlines obligated in any way to provide timely refunds?” Another asked, “On a recent flight, American Airlines removed my checked bag because the plane was too heavy. No one from American informed me until I had waited at baggage claim about 45 minutes and then at the claims office for another 30 minutes. Am I entitled to any remedy other than eventual delivery of my bag to my residence?”

The short answer to each reader is “no.” Although as an air traveler, you do have some special rights, they’re extremely limited.

A few real rights

If an airline bumps you off an overbooked flight on which you had a confirmed reservation and valid ticket, and you arrived at the departure gate by the specified time, your airline is required to get you to your final destination within a specified time—either two or four hours, depending on where you fly—and to payment of $200 to $400, again depending on circumstances. That’s federal law, and it applies to most scheduled flights within and from the U.S. It does not apply to flights in smaller planes, nor does it apply on flights from foreign countries to the U.S.

As a practical matter, the airlines actually cut checks for only about one in 10 overbooked travelers. Most travelers volunteer to take later flights in exchange for “free” tickets or other inducements. This requirement applies only to bumping due to overbooking. It does not cover bumping for any other reason—a switch to a smaller plane, for example.

The only other federal protection you’re likely to encounter is the requirement that the operator of a tour using charter air service must keep your prepayments in an escrow account until your trip is complete. That requirement protects you against financial failure of tour operators.

Voluntary commitments

Each major U.S. airline has agreed to adopt and publish a “Customer Service Plan,” a laundry list of voluntary consumer protections. One, for example, specifies that an airline must respond to a consumer complaint within 60 days; another says an airline must issue ticket refunds within seven days (for credit card purchases) or 20 days (for cash). Others specify what an airline will and will not do in the event of cancellations, delays, lost baggage, and such. For a look at the general outline, log onto the Air Transport Association website. And each airline posts its own more detailed plan.

Although these promises sound good, they have two fundamental weaknesses:

  • Most of them are vague enough to allow airlines a lot of “wiggle room.”
  • There is no mechanism for enforcement if an airline fails to comply.

One-sided contracts

In all cases except airline overbooking, the contract is the starting point—and often the endpoint—that determines what you get and what you don’t get. And if you regularly deal with contracts in “normal” business relationships, you’ll be appalled by the one-sided nature of most airline contracts:

  • As a customer, you have to pay—often in advance—and often with stringent penalties if you want to change any part of your end of the deal.
  • The airlines, on the other hand, give themselves all sorts of leeway to weasel out of their initial promises.

Most airlines post their full contracts—called “conditions of carriage” or similar—on their websites. Take a look sometime.

General contract law

In some complaints, an airline may do well enough to satisfy you. But many lines feel free to ignore you entirely, or to stonewall you, no matter how reasonable your case. In those instances, your only recourse is to general contract law.

Your rights under general contract law are strongest when (1) you can show an airline is in violation of its own contract or (2) the supplier’s action/inaction results in a measurable monetary loss to you. But you can also at least try to get compensation even for instances not covered by the contract—or even for situations that are nominally excluded from the contract.

One recent legal principle works in your favor. Courts have generally held that an online transaction takes place at the location of your computer, so that you can bring an action in a local court regardless of where the airline is headquartered.

Credit card protections

Other travel writers and I have written extensively on your ability to request a chargeback when something you buy with a credit card is not delivered to you. That protection is extremely important, but it is limited to cases where you don’t receive what you buy. It doesn’t help if you’re dissatisfied.

What to do

Obviously, whenever you have a dispute with an airline, you should first try to resolve it with that line.

  • Always ask for some specific compensation. Anytime you ask an airline to make an “appropriate” settlement, chances are close to 100 percent the line will figure that no settlement at all is “appropriate.”
  • Since an airline’s first response is almost always a brush-off, send a follow-up complaint before you go any further.

If an airline still denies compensation (or whatever else you request), your only recourse is to general contract law. And that means court action—or at least the real threat of court action.

Clearly, you don’t want to start that process over a trivial monetary loss or claim for inconvenience. And if all you want is an apology, forget going past your second letter of complaint.

But if you have some significant money involved, head for court—small claims court for most cases, regular court if lots of money is involved. Often, the prospect of defending itself in a court gets the attention of a previously inert line.

Here’s how those suggestions translate into actions for the two readers:

  • There’s no law that specifies how quickly an airline must settle a refund, and British Airways did not participate in the U.S. Customer Service Plan program. Nevertheless, a six-month delay in processing a refund is inexcusable. If British Airways failed to provide a refund for that long, the reader should initiate court action—probably in small claims—and add some extra dollars to cover the costs and inconvenience of having to go to court.
  • On the other hand, the inconvenience of waiting over an hour for a misplaced bag probably doesn’t rise to the level of a prospective court action. That reader should submit a complaint to the Department of Transportation, where it will add to American’s black-eye score, then forget the problem.

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