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Stranded? Frequent Flyers Have Rights!

After a prolonged slump in the wake of 9/11, air travel has staged a resounding comeback.

While the industry remains in turmoil, racking up numbing losses and keeping consumers nervously monitoring the media for breaking news of bankruptcies and liquidation, the airlines are operating a record number of flights, and planes are running fuller than ever. During 2004, the nation’s 18 largest airlines operated 7.1 million domestic flights—a 9.9 percent increase over 2003 and by far the most flights ever.

A natural byproduct of the rise in traffic is increased strain on the commercial aviation system, resulting in more flight delays, more cancellations, and more bumped passengers.

Mileage program members heading to the airport with their frequent flyer award tickets in hand face the same odds as paid ticket holders of experiencing service disruptions. And as a general rule, both types of travelers will receive equal treatment in the event of flight irregularities. However, in the event that flights are indeed canceled, or overbooked, award ticket holders should know what their rights are.

Flight delays

The most common flight irregularity is the delay. The causes of delays, and their duration, vary and affect the airlines’ responses.

In cases where the delay is caused by a force majeure (weather, “act of God,” strike, war, or other uncontrollable factor), airlines typically commit to no more than accommodating the passenger on a later flight or refunding the price of the ticket. In the case of an award ticket, the price is in miles rather than in dollars, so the refund would consist of redepositing miles in the member’s account.

When delays are for reasons within their control, airlines again will arrange for alternative transportation or refund the unused portion of the ticket. If the delay is prolonged, they will provide such amenities as phone cards, meal vouchers, and hotel accommodations (when an overnight stay is required) to both revenue and award passengers alike.

Canceled flights

Worse than a delay to most travelers is an outright flight cancellation.

Because a cancellation is, in effect, just an extended delay, the rules covering reaccommodation and compensation are basically the same. Again, the airlines will rebook customers on later flights, or they will refund the value of any unused portion of travelers’ tickets, in dollars or miles, if alternative transportation cannot be secured. And, if circumstances warrant, the airlines may spring for phone calls, meals, and hotels.

Denied boarding (aka bumping)

Denied boarding is potentially every bit as frustrating as a flight disruption. But unlike delays and cancellations, ticketed passengers who are denied boarding can generally expect to be compensated for their inconvenience.

A passenger holding a confirmed reservation may be denied boarding (or bumped, in the vernacular) when the airline sells more seats than the aircraft can accommodate. Such overbooking is the airlines’ way of maximizing per-flight revenue, given the probability that some ticketed passengers will fail to show up for their flights. When an airline overestimates the number of no-shows and sells too many extra seats to compensate, the result is more passengers than there are available seats. Some passengers must be turned away.

Before airlines decide which customers to bump, they are required by the DOT to ask for volunteers: travelers who are willing to take a later flight. If the flight is still oversold after the volunteers’ seats have been released, the airline will be forced to deny boarding to additional passengers on an involuntary basis.

Normally, carriers use a “last-in/first-out” rule to decide which passengers to bump. In other words, those who checked in latest at the airport will be put on the top of the list to be bumped. Other factors may also be considered, including ticket type and elite status, when a tie-breaker is necessary. But in most cases, a paying passenger who checked in late will be bumped before an award ticket holder who arrived at the airport early.

Whether the bump is voluntary or involuntary, the airline will arrange to fly affected passengers on the next available flight and will usually compensate them for the inconvenience. Whether the stranded passenger is holding a paid ticket or a frequent flyer award, compensation typically takes the form of a travel voucher, cash, frequent flyer miles, or some combination thereof.

A patchwork of policies

Strangely, considering that air transportation is widely acknowledged to be a critical part of the country’s infrastructure, there is no single set of policies—either handed down from the DOT or agreed to multilaterally on the airlines’ own initiative—that governs the treatment of airline passengers inconvenienced by flight irregularities.

Travelers who want to know the minute details of a particular airline’s policies should look up the carrier’s Contract of Carriage, the single most comprehensive policy document for any airline. In the digital age, all larger carriers have posted their Contracts of Carriage online, so they can be easily accessed and reviewed. The bad news is that Contracts of Carriage are not for those who are averse to small print and legalese. Delta’s, which is by no means extraordinary, runs to 58 pages.

Or, for further inquiries, travelers can read the DOT’s “Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel.”

Frequent flyers work hard to earn enough miles for an award ticket, and are by no means considered second-class citizens by any airline in the event of a flight disruption. Ultimately, the best consumers can do is know their rights, however limited such rights may be, and hope they don’t find themselves in the position of having to invoke them.

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