It is legal for airlines to sell more seats for a flight than are actually on the plane (to account for no-shows). If too many people show up for your flight, the airline must ask for volunteers to give up their seats. Those who choose to be bumped from a flight may receive rewards from the airline, such as vouchers for future travel, a hotel stay or even cash. These must be negotiated on an individual basis with the airline.
If you are bumped involuntarily, the airline must explain your rights in a written document, which will also fill you in on how the airline decides who does and who doesn't get to stay on an oversold flight. You may keep your ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket. You are also entitled to compensation, with a few exceptions; for instance, if the airline arranges alternative transportation that gets you to our destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, the carrier does not have to compensate you. Similarly, you must meet all check-in deadlines and have a confirmed reservation in order to be compensated for being bumped from an oversold flight. Note that the airline does not have to compensate you if it is forced to fly a smaller plane than originally scheduled.
For more information, including compensation limits, check out our article on Bumping and Overbooking.
As soon as you determine that your luggage hasn't shown up with your flight, you'll need to file a claim with your airline at the airport. If your bags are delayed, airlines usually agree to pay "reasonable" expenses until the luggage is found. The amount paid is subject to negotiation, and you may have to fight for a decent payment.
If your bags are not found, you must file a second claim, which takes some time to process. It is normal to wait six weeks to three months for reimbursement, although some airlines are much more efficient than others. For bags lost or damaged on flights within the U.S., a liability limit of $3,300 applies. On international trips, the liability limit may vary, as it is governed by various international treaties, including the Montreal and Warsaw Conventions. As of August 2011, if you pay a baggage fee and your bag is lost, the airline must refund your fee as well. Check your airline's Web site for specifics.
Beware of deadlines! If you miss the check-in deadline, the carrier is not responsible for your bag if it is delayed or lost.
If you discover items in your baggage that are damaged or missing, you can visit the TSA Claims Management Office to file a claim.
Conditions of Carriage
Passenger rights vary by airline, and are sometimes referred to as "Conditions of Carriage" or "Contract of Carriage." Click on your airline to read its policies:
Don't see your airline? Check out our full list of Airline Phone Numbers and Web Sites.
The Airlines' Rights
An airline is not necessarily liable if your flight is delayed or canceled. There are some situations, such as inclement weather and "acts of God," which are deemed beyond the carriers' control. In these cases, the airline will usually refund your ticket even if it's a nonrefundable ticket, but won't be responsible for any inconvenience it may have caused you.
The following is a partial list of situations in which an airline may legally deny you boarding or remove you from a flight on which you are confirmed.
According to the provisions of the DOT and the Air Carrier Access Act, passengers may not be denied boarding on the basis of disability, nor are they required to have an attendant or medical documentation except in certain circumstances. Airlines must also provide the following services free of charge:
More detailed information for disabled passengers can be found on the DOT's Web site and in our story on Disabled Travel.
Got a Complaint?
If you can't resolve your problem or question at the airport and want to file a complaint, call or write the airline's consumer office at its corporate headquarters.
The DOT has a Web site set up specifically to deal with consumer complaints; you can submit an online form or find the agency's phone number and mailing address. You can also report problems to the Federal Aviation Administration.
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