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The Fine Print: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Airline fine print can sometimes land you in unexpected trouble. We just received two similar questions about late arrival at the gate for an imminent departure. Here’s one:

“I believe I was treated unfairly at Heathrow Airport. I arrived at the check-in counter one hour before my flight and was told my flight was ‘closed ten minutes ago.’ However, for $250.00, I could get on the next flight. I had no choice but to pay $250 or be stranded in London. I had already paid $1,000 for a ticket and my plane was still at the gate. Why should I have to pay extra?”

A second question raised the same issue. And the short answer to both is, “You missed your flight and had to pay extra because you failed to comply with the airline’s check-in time requirement.” And both questions raise the broader issue of traps hidden in airline contracts that can bite you if you ignore them.

Contract of Carriage: The Final Word

When you buy a ticket on any airline, you’re entering a contract with that airline. With airlines, those contracts are specifically called “contracts of carriage.” And you can forget advertised schedules, promotions, and anything else—the contract of carriage, and only the contract of carriage, spells out what the airline legally owes you and what you agree to do on your end of the contract. And those contracts are incredibly one-sided: For the most part, the airlines commit themselves only to “best efforts,” “endeavor to,” and other such weasel words, while passengers are tied into some extremely specific requirements.

Airlines based in the U.S. are required to have copies of their contracts available to the public and all post those contracts on their websites—although they’re sometimes hard to find. For this report, we checked all 17 domestic U.S. airlines that fly mainline equipment (DC9/A318/B737 or larger). Some contracts are relatively short, starting at around 15 pages; others run to 60 pages or so, mostly dull and dreary boilerplate. But buried in those dreary words are two kinds of time deadlines that can seriously disrupt travel or entail extra costs for unaware travelers.

Check-In Deadlines

Both of our reader letters dealt with this sometime vexatious question. Most airlines post three distinct time limits for travelers checking in for domestic flights:

  • Official check-in and boarding pass. Most airlines require that you formally check in—which means getting a boarding pass—for a departing flight at least 30 minutes before departure for domestic flights; some require 45 minutes at congested airports. Major exceptions are Allegiant which says 120 minutes, Hawaiian and USA 3000, which say 45 minutes for all flights, and JetBlue, which says 20 minutes for some flights. Of course, a check-in limit doesn’t matter if you use the online advance check-in and boarding pass system that many big lines employ.
  • Baggage check. Airlines typically cut off checked baggage acceptance at the same 30- 45-minute limit as check-in time or, in some cases, a bit longer, reaching 60 minutes at a few problem airports. Allegiant requires 120 minutes and Sun Country says 90 minutes.
  • Gate arrival. However you get your boarding pass, and whether or not you check bags, airlines insist that you be at the departure gate before scheduled departure. On most lines, the requirement for domestic flights is either 10 minutes or 15 minutes. Main exceptions are Allegiant and Sun Country at 30 minutes and Frontier and United at 20 minutes. Some lines even specify that their policy is to “close the door” five minutes prior to departure.

Check-in and gate arrival limits are generally higher for international flights. International check-in is hardly ever less than 60 minutes and is longer in some cases, and gate arrival can be as high as 30 minutes.

If you fail to meet any of these requirements, the airline reserves the right to bar you from getting on the plane and may load standby travelers, whether or not you arrive at the gate while the standbys are still loading. The airline doesn’t always take a hard-nosed attitude, but it can—and does frequently enough that you should be careful to comply.

Also, airlines reserve the right to treat anyone who misses check-in or gate deadlines as a no-show. No-show treatment varies from airline to airline, as well; some are totally rigid about requiring late travelers to buy new tickets at the minimum applicable fare, which might be much higher than they originally paid; others observe a “flat tire” leniency policy, and still others allow re-ticketing with a penalty but not a higher fare. As far as I can tell, applications of these various policies are usually somewhat flexible, at the discretion of local supervisors. But the airlines have the legal right to be totally hard-nosed if they choose.

Most lines waive time limits on connecting flights due to late arrival of an incoming flight. However, I couldn’t find anything one way or another about the special circumstance of connecting flights on different airlines on separate tickets. I’ve heard from readers in those cases that the second airline typically treats them as no-shows, but reticketing requirements are flexible.

Baggage Loss/Damage Claims

Airlines are liable for lost or damaged baggage, up to a limit of $3,300 on domestic flights in the U.S.; less on some international routes. However, airlines set tight time limits to submit an official notification about missing bags, delayed bags, and damaged contents.

  • Most lines say you have to file an initial claim within four hours of arrival. The main exceptions are AirTran, Alaska, Delta, and United, which give you 24 hours.
  • You normally have 21 to 45 days to submit a proof of loss, including valuation.

As a practical matter, you should inspect your checked baggage immediately after you claim it and submit at least your initial paperwork before you leave your arrival airport. This requirement can be a real nuisance, because filing a claim at the airport often means standing in a long line at an understaffed claim counter. But if you skip this step the airline might well deny a subsequent claim.

As with the time limits, airlines don’t have to deny a baggage claim because of failure to report a loss within the limit, but they can. As far as I know, they’re reasonably lenient about claims for damage that you don’t discover until you unpack, but there’s no promise.

Other Airlines

Airlines not based in the U.S. impose similar time limits on check-in, baggage, and gate arrival. Check the website of any line you plan to fly.

One hidden trap is that some of these lines apparently still require ticketed travelers to “reconfirm” return or ongoing reservations at each stopover point. Although no longer required in much of the world, failure to observe this arcane procedure can lead to a cancelled reservation. Again, if you’re not sure, check with your airline.

Other Traps

Although time limits are the traps most likely to cause you grief, they aren’t the only potential problems lurking within airline contracts. Most contracts, for example, specifically forbid hidden-city, back-to-back, and throw-away ticketing. They specify that you don’t really “own” your frequent flyer miles—and lots more limitations to your disadvantage. I’ll cover these and other hidden traps later.

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