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What Are My Rights When a Hurricane Hits?

This year, travelers headed for the Gulf Coast or Caribbean have already faced the consequences of canceled or delayed flights and vacations due to Hurricane Gustav, and future disruptions are possible. So travelers are understandably wary about airline tickets they’ve already bought or plan to buy. One reader asked us, simply:

“What are my rights with an airline when a hurricane might hit my destination?”

The short answer: The only “rights” you have are those you can negotiate with your airline. When a bad storm is forecast, most airlines adopt short-term policies on an ad hoc basis, but beyond what they promise, publicly, your only legal rights are those you can assert through general contract requirements. What’s happened with the current tropical storm or Hurricane Gustav seems to be par for the course.

Temporary Changes

As illustrations, I checked two airlines with lots of flights in the affected areas:

  • American Airlines posted rules—to be updated as required—for travelers headed into potential target areas. Travelers ticketed to or through the several islands in the storm’s path could change their reservations without any change fee to begin their replacement trips no later than September 4.
  • Continental’s notice stated travelers ticketed to or through mainland Gulf ports could reschedule trips starting on or before September 10 with no charge and no change of fare. Travelers could also reticket for a substitute trip starting after September 10 with no change fee, but they’d have to have paid whatever fare difference existed at the time.

You see similar approaches among the other airlines that serve the region.

Given the uncertainty of a storm’s path and landfall times, the airlines modify their substitute-trip dates as required. Of course, if you wait until the storm actually hits and your flight is canceled, you can always get a full refund.

Broader Policies

Beyond the specifics of individual storms, American posts an ongoing Hurricane Protection Policy. Its basic provisions kick in when—and only when—the National Hurricane Center announces the dates of a hurricane watch.

  • You can cancel a nonrefundable ticket and receive a voucher for the ticket value good for a year.
  • If you want to reschedule, you must schedule a replacement trip to start within seven days of your original ticket.
  • You can depart earlier without penalty, subject to the availability of seats in your original fare bucket.
  • You can switch to a different destination without a change penalty, but you pay the fare difference.

American’s is the only such policy I found posted on airlines’ websites, though others may have such policies.

What You Don’t Get

Clearly, these airline policies are a far cry from the tort law concept of making you “whole.” Basically, as long as the airline can continue to operate, its policies totally ignore the conditions you can expect on the ground. If you’re planning a sunny beach vacation, for example, and your resort is seriously damaged by a storm, you might want to delay your trip several weeks—or even until next spring.

But unless you reschedule a new trip within a very narrow time window, your options are limited. If your flight is canceled, you get your money back, but in other circumstances, you get only a voucher. And in either case, you’ll probably wind up paying a lot more for a future trip because of fare increases.

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