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Will New Passenger Rights Rules Help Fliers?

airplane window seat woman flight air travel vacation tripNo matter how much time you spend planning and researching a trip, things still occasionally go wrong -- and air travel is no exception. From weather delays to lost luggage, mishaps at the airport can strike at any time, and sometimes the best you can do is to expect the unexpected.

That's why it's important to know your rights as a passenger. What happens if you get involuntarily bumped from a flight? What kind of compensation can you expect if an airline loses your suitcase? And where can you turn if you have a complaint?

Read on to learn exactly what rights you have -- and what restrictions you face -- every time you fly.

New Rights for Fliers
Over the past couple of years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued several federal rules to expand rights for fliers. As of April 2010, airlines operating flights within the U.S. may no longer keep a plane on the tarmac for more than three hours, and they will have to provide "adequate food and potable drinking water" for any delays longer than two hours. There must also be functioning lavatories onboard during the delay, as well as medical attention when necessary. (The three-hour rule is waived if safety or security is at stake, or if air traffic control reports that airport operations will be disrupted if the plane returns to the gate.) Airlines who violate this rule must pay a penalty of $27,500 per passenger.

In 2011, the DOT expanded this rule to foreign airlines operating in the U.S.; a four-hour limit on tarmac delays applies to international flights.

The 2010 rule also prohibited airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights and required them to display flight delay information on their Web sites. You can read more about the provisions of the rule in Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights.

The DOT extended fliers' rights in 2011 by raising compensation limits for oversold flights, requiring airlines to refund baggage fees when checked bags are lost and mandating the full disclosure of potential fees on airline Web sites. (Note that some of these provisions have been delayed until January 2012.) For more details, see How Will the DOT's New Airline Passenger Rights Affect You?

Your Tickets
  • Reservations:
    Once you have a confirmed reservation, you are confirmed on the flight even if there is no record of your reservation in the airline's computer system. If you have a ticket or print-out that shows a confirmed reservation for a specific flight and date, an agent cannot deny you boarding because you have no reservation in the computer. However, if you don't show up for a flight and fail to cancel the reservation, you are considered a no-show and the airline can cancel any continuing or return reservations.

  • Refunds:
    Refund guidelines vary from carrier to carrier, but there are a few general rules. If you need to cancel a ticket purchased under a nonrefundable fare, you may be able to apply the fare you paid toward a future flight, minus any applicable change or cancellation fees. If you need to cancel a refundable ticket purchased by credit card, your refund will be issued as a credit on the same card you used to make the purchase. (Contact your credit card company for support if you have problems getting a refund from your airline in a timely manner.)

    At The Airport
  • Check-In Times:
    airport sign terminal gates restaurantsEven if you have already checked in for your flight, an airline can cancel your reservation if you are not at the departure gate on time. Your seat may be given to another passenger, regardless of whether you have an advance boarding pass or an advance seat assignment. By the same token, if you do not check your baggage in sufficient time for it to be loaded on your flight, the airline will not be responsible for any delay in the delivery of your baggage to your destination. We recommend that you arrive at least two hours before your departure time (or earlier if you're flying internationally or over the holidays).

  • Got Your ID?:
    All adults are required to present photo identification upon check-in and at boarding. (Most minors under the age of 18 do not need to provide ID for domestic travel, but airline policies may vary; consult your airline before your flight to make sure, and bring ID if you have it.) You also may be subject to a physical or electronic search at the airport. If you don't want to be searched, you will likely be denied boarding and may lose the money you paid for your ticket.

  • Delays/Cancellations:
    Airlines are not required to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. Each carrier differs in its policy and there are no federal requirements for passenger compensation. Most airlines will book you on the next available flight if your flight is canceled. If your plane is delayed, the airline may pay for meals or a phone call, so it's worth asking. Some will offer no amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or other conditions beyond their control. Compensation is required by law only if you are "bumped" from a flight that is oversold (discussed below).

    Editor's Note: If you are traveling in the European Union, you do have the right to compensation if your flight is canceled or delayed, but only under certain circumstances. If the airline can claim "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken" -- this could include weather, political instability, security issues and other similar situations -- the airline does not have to provide compensation. For more information, visit the European Union's Web site.

    As part of the 2011 passenger rights protections from the DOT, airlines are required "to promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions." This must be done at the gate area, on the airline's Web site and on its telephone reservation system.

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