No 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.
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 -- and as long as you didn't cancel the reservation or miss a reconfirmation deadline -- 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.
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.)
Even 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).
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.) Be sure that the name on your ID matches the name on your ticket; don't purchase an international ticket under the name "Jenny" if your passport says Jennifer, for example.
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.
While there are no federal requirements governing flights delayed while passengers are in the terminal, there are limits for planes on the tarmac. Airlines operating flights within the U.S. may not keep a plane on the tarmac for more than three hours, and they must provide drinking water and some sort of food 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.) The maximum delay for international flights is four hours. Airlines who violate this rule must pay a penalty.
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 $3,400 applies. On international trips, the liability limit may vary, as it is governed by an international treaty called the the Montreal Conventions. If you pay a baggage fee and your bag is lost, the airline must refund this fee as well.
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 your bag or its contents arrive in damaged condition, you can usually get compensation for repair or replacement from the airline. Be aware that fragile items or those that the airline deems were not packaged carefully enough may not be excluded.
Passenger rights vary by airline, and are sometimes referred to as "Conditions of Carriage" or "Contract of Carriage." This document must be posted on your carrier's website (though it may take a bit of a search to find it!), and it's well worth a read if you're confused about what you are or aren't entitled to.
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:
- Help with getting on and off planes and making connections, whether this requires extra personnel or special equipment
- TTY devices in airport terminals and airline reservations centers
- "Timely access" for any visually or hearing-impaired passengers to information on gate assignments, security and other publicly announced information
- Access to the plane's cabin for any necessary service animals (as long as they don't block aisles or escape routes)
- Permission to include wheelchairs as checked baggage without liability waivers (except for pre-existing damage)
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.
- If the airline must comply with any government regulation or request for emergency transportation in connection with national defense
- If there is inclement weather or other conditions beyond the airline's control
- If you refuse to be searched for explosives or concealed weapons
- If you refuse to provide positive identification or don't have proper documentation for travel across international boundaries
- If your conduct is disorderly, abusive or violent, or if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- If you are barefoot or clothed in a way that might be offensive to others
- If you attempt to interfere with any member of the flight crew or jeopardize the safety of the plane
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. Reaching out via social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter is another good way to get a response.
The DOT has a website set up specifically to deal with consumer complaints; you can submit an online form or find the agency's phone number and mailing address.