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Rule 240: Fading fast

Some self-styled “consumer” websites and books still urge you to invoke “Rule 240” when your flight is delayed—to demand your original airline transfer you to another line that can get you to your destination more quickly. Sadly, much of what you see about Rule 240 these days is seriously out of date, and some of it was never correct in the first place. No wonder travelers can be confused.

For example, a reader recently asked: “I just got this information about Rule 240 from an online source: ‘If flight troubles are due to mechanical difficulties or airline incompetence, and another airline can get you to your destination sooner, the original airline is obligated to transfer you.’ Before I start waving the rules around at the airport, I wanted to know if they are even still in use.”

The short answer: They’re still in use, sort of, but neither universally nor uniformly. A few airlines still operate under the original Rule 240 formula, but with modifications; others formerly did but no longer do, and still others never did.

How it started

In its original incarnation, the Rule 240 formula committed an airline facing a delayed flight to transfer you to another carrier if (1) the second airline could get you to your destination more quickly than the original line and (2) it had available seats. In pre-deregulation days, all the big U.S. airlines adhered to this practice.

Even then, though, travelers faced some confusion over Rule 240, starting with the fact that it was never 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 details about what they would and would not do in a wide range of circumstances. Those tariffs, in effect, constituted the contract between airlines and travelers.

In the then-standardized format, tariff paragraphs were often called “rules,” and paragraph 240 of every line’s tariff dealt with the airline’s responsibilities in the event of delay or cancellation. All big scheduled airlines had interline agreements, so they all, uniformly, agreed to transfer a delayed traveler to another line provided the second line could get the traveler to his/her destination sooner. 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, we travel writers urged travelers to insist on a “Rule 240” transfer.

No more standard “rule”

In today’s deregulated marketplace, airlines are no longer required to file standard domestic tariffs. Instead, the boilerplate that used to be in the tariff is now contained 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). Some current contracts of carriage pretty much mimic the original tariffs, while others are completely new documents, in new formats and with new language.

A few years ago, in attempt to stave off the previous round of demands for a “passengers’ bill of rights,” the legacy (pre-deregulation major) lines voluntarily posted “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.

The current situation

The big lines’ contracts of carriage (as of early April) still employ at least some of the original paragraph 240 language, while others have dropped it completely:

  • Alaska and Northwest retain close to the original paragraph 240 language. 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 Alaska or Northwest.
  • Continental and United also employ some of the old 240 wording, but will transfer you to another line only if their delay is more than two hours.
  • Delta says it transfer travelers to other airlines, but only “at our sole discretion.” In effect, you can ask, but you can’t demand.
  • JetBlue and US Airways say they’ll transfer you to another line if they can’t provide a seat on one of their own flights, but they don’t specify a time limit for finding a seat on one of their flights.
  • American promises only to accommodate you on another American flight (but it can transfer you if it chooses).
  • Southwest, which never employed the original paragraph 240, promises only to put you on another of its own flights. Other, smaller lines generally do the same.

In general, Rule 240 or equivalent transfers apply only when the delay is the fault of the airline. Weather or other force majeure causes do not trigger a transfer. In all cases, you have the option of a full refund.

Dealing with delay

Obviously, on most lines, mandatory transfers are a thing of the past. 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), you can certainly ask for a transfer, but you may not get it. According to their current contracts, Alaska, Continental, and United should be required to provide that transfer (but with some limitations). Most other legacy lines may transfer you, but they may also refuse—all you can do is ask. And if your delay is on Southwest or one of several smaller lines, you’re probably stuck waiting for the next available seat on that same line, or a refund.

When you’re on a delayed flight, you face another problem. These days, with record high load factors, you may find that even if your airline is willing to transfer you, no other airline has available seats.

If you travel a lot, I suggest you become familiar with either the contract of carriage or customer service plan for any airline you regularly fly. Although some lines make copies available at their counters, your best bet is to get online before you travel anywhere: Those documents are pretty easy to find on big line websites.

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