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Flyer Advice

Know Your Rights as an Air Passenger

Know Your Rights as an Air Passenger
Caroline Lupini

You’re heading to the airport when you get a call from the airline that your flight is canceled. No problem, though—they’ve booked you on another flight. Next Tuesday! “Can they really do that?” is probably what is going through your mind. Generally speaking, yes, they can. While you can’t control the weather or what your airline does, you can at least be informed about your rights, such as they are.

Contract of Carriage

In the past, when you bought air tickets, the ticket jacket would have a fold-out section that contained the Contract of Carriage. It was in tiny, dense print and explained your rights and the airline’s responsibilities. These still exist, but you’ll find them on the airline’s website. While the Contract of Carriage is specific to each airline, it’s the contract that lays out what you’re entitled to in exchange for buying a ticket. These contracts tend to be pretty one-sided. The airline will owe you (and your checked bags) transportation, on some schedule and some conveyance, between your originating and destination cities. If the airline is unable to provide you with that, then you’re entitled to a refund for the unused portion of your ticket.

What the Contract of Carriage typically won’t guarantee is the following:

  • Any particular schedule
  • Whether transportation is on a plane, train, bus or automobile
  • To put you on another airline’s flight
  • Any recourse other than a refund for the unused portion of your ticket

One rule of thumb: While they still don’t guarantee much, traditional network carriers typically guarantee more in the Contract of Carriage than low-cost carriers (particularly ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier).


Airlines are mostly deregulated businesses, but there are a handful of regulations they have to follow. For example, in some circumstances, delays and cancellations involving flights to, from and within the European Union can result in the airline being required to pay you compensation under the European EU 261 regulation.

Airline Policy

In the interest of customer service, some airlines have policies that are more generous than the contract of carriage. However, if the airline is doing more for you than is strictly required under the contract, they have no obligation to do this. For example, “Rule 240,” an old FAA rule from before 1978 when airlines were deregulated, is still honored by some carriers. They don’t have to do this, but they still do (for at least some of their passengers).

The upshot? While the Contract of Carriage isn’t negotiable, airline policy is sometimes open to interpretation by the gate agent you’re working with to rebook your flight. If you push too hard, though, the agent can fall back on the Contract of Carriage. While you probably won’t know the difference between airline policies and what’s actually required in the Contract of Carriage, the agent definitely does. So, it pays to be nice.

Flight Delays/Cancellations

What the airline is required to do in the case of a flight delay or cancellation depends upon the problem. If it’s the weather, the airline owes you very little. Not surprisingly, some airlines seem to delay flights for “weather” reasons while a mechanic is rectifying an issue in the cockpit and other airlines are still operating flights! If the delay is due to weather, the airline owes you the following:

  • Updates on when your flight is departing
  • A new flight or a refund of the unused portion of your ticket if your flight is canceled
  • Indifferent shrugs. Actually, they don’t owe these, but you’ll probably get them.

Airlines may also provide you with a discounted hotel voucher if you get stuck overnight, but you will have to pay for the room.

If the delay isn’t due to weather—such as a mechanical issue or a flight crew being unavailable to operate the flight—the airline will provide some limited benefits:

  • New flight: Your airline will book you on new flights. These are negotiable, to a point. By default, airlines only look for their own flights, and default to the next available one. This often means that if you’re stuck overnight, they book you on a 6 am flight the next morning.
    • If you don’t like the new schedule, ask for an alternative.
    • It helps if you research available options on all airlines (not just the one you’re flying) before you get to the podium so you can present the agent with your preferred options.
    • Southwest won’t ever book you onto another airline and vice-versa. They have no agreements with other airlines to make this possible.
  • Phone call: The airline will typically let you make a short call anywhere in the world to notify someone that you’ll be late. So, if you’ll be late to the South Pole, it’s a good time to catch them up at the airline’s expense.
  • Meals: The airline will typically provide you with a meal voucher if the delay is more than 2 hours. These can be redeemed in airport restaurants, but check the amount and make sure it’s enough to actually buy a meal. If the reimbursement rate is too low, you may be able to negotiate for an additional voucher.
  • Hotel room: You’ll be provided with a hotel room overnight if there are no available flights on the same day. Don’t expect it to be fancy: Think Comfort Inn or Ramada as the typical standard booked.

Lost and Delayed Luggage

If the airline loses your bag, they are obligated to find it and deliver it to you. This doesn’t just mean at the airport—it means delivering it to wherever you are staying in your destination, even if it’s a different city than where you flew. If they can’t find your bag, they’ll owe you compensation as detailed in the Contract of Carriage. For international flights, the reimbursement rates are very low, because they’re governed by a decades-old arrangement called the Warsaw Convention. They’re a fixed value calculated based on the weight of the bag, and usually add up to the cost of a new bag (minus the contents).

If the airline damages your bag, they may owe you repairs, depending on what they broke. Wheels on spinner cases constantly break off (which is why you might want to consider buying a different type of bag), and airlines won’t replace them. A baggage agent will assess your bag at the airport, and if it’s eligible for repairs they’ll refer you to a local shop to have the work done.

Airlines don’t owe you much these days. However, they can often do more than they’ll offer so don’t be afraid to ask!


[Featured Image: iStock]

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