Air travel tips: 5 things to know about your rights on flights

Air travel tips: 5 things to know about your rights on flights
The Department of Transportation give passengers certain protections when it comes to air travel.
Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock.com
The Department of Transportation give passengers certain protections when it comes to air travel.
Source: michaeljung/Shutterstock.com

If you’re squeezing in your summer vacation at the end of August, there’s a good chance you’ll also be squeezing into an airplane with a few hundred strangers as well. Summer is one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, so flights are especially packed. And as excited as you may be about hitting the beach or exploring ancient ruins abroad, the journey itself will likely evoke less ebullient emotions.

Air travel in particular can be a nightmare, and disturbing incidents like the dragging of passenger David Dao from a United Airlines flight and Ann Coulter’s tweet storm after she was booted from her pre-booked seat on a Delta flight serve as a reminder of just how hellish commercial flights can be.

Why do incidents like this happen? The sad truth is that you may not have as many rights as you would expect when you book your ticket or board a plane, in large part because the airline largely sets the terms of your relationship. “The airline contract is filled with weasly words even if a specific seat has been reserved,” Charlie Leocha, co-founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Travelers United told Mic via email.

That doesn’t mean you have no rights at all, but you have to speak up to get them honored. “Your first course of action is to ask airline staff the reason for the disruption — whether your flight is delayed or you’re being denied a premium seat or service you’ve paid for — and write it down,” Scott Ginsberg of AirHelp told Mic. “Then hang onto all documents that may be necessary for a claim follow-up, including your boarding pass and receipt for premium seat.”

Of course, you need to know what your rights actually are in the first place. Here are five to always keep in mind:

Paying for a seat does not guarantee you that seat — or any seat — on the flight you booked.

When you’ve paid for a ticket, and especially if you’ve paid extra for a particular seat, you may think this is a guarantee that you’ll be in seat 3F on Flight 24. Unfortunately, that’s definitely not the case.

“What many passengers don’t realize is that they enter into a contract every time they purchase a flight,” Ginsberg said. “This is called a contract of carriage and it outlines the legal expectations on you and on the airline in regards to your flight.”

If a flight is overbooked, airlines usually start by offering incentives for people to volunteer to take a later flight. After the David Dao incident, airlines began significantly increasing incentives for volunteers: Delta and United said they would authorize agents to offer up to $10,000, while Southwest said it would end overbooking altogether.

If there aren’t enough volunteers, airlines can still deny boarding. In that case, airlines must pay up to $1,350 or 400% of the ticket price — whichever is less — depending on the length of time you’re delayed by switching flights, according to Department of Transportation regulations.

Who’s most likely to get bumped? “Passengers who purchase the lowest fares are most likely to be denied boarding over higher-class ticket passengers,” Ginsberg said. “It makes the most business sense for airlines to bump the cheapest fare flyers, as the payout will be less compared to the more expensive ticket-holders.” What’s more, if an airline has to switch aircrafts for safety or operational reasons, they don’t have to pay you a dime.

Lastly, your specific seat isn’t guaranteed, as the airline is free to reassign it at their discretion, according to Leocha. However, if you’re reassigned from your prebooked seat, you’ll typically be refunded any extra fees you paid for it.

You won’t get compensated for most delays.

Airlines typically don’t have to compensate you for delays, unless you were involuntarily bumped from the flight (and the delay in getting to your final destination is more than one hour) or are traveling on certain European flights, Smarter Travel reported. Some airlines pay for meals, phone calls and even hotels, but most offer no compensation for a delay caused by bad weather, safety concerns, decisions made by air traffic control or external equipment problems.

Don’t expect to be compensated if your flight is delayed due to bad weather or other safety concerns.
Source: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

However, airlines must provide timely notice of flight delays expected to last 30 minutes or longer as well as for flight cancellations. And they need to be prompt: They only have 30 minutes to tell you about the status change after they find out about it.

But there’s a limit to the amount of time you can be kept on the tarmac.

If an aircraft has 30 or more passengers, it’s prohibited by law from keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours on domestic flights or more than four hours on international flights without the option to deplane.

If you’re on the tarmac waiting out a delay for two or more hours, the airline is required to provide you with working bathrooms, any necessary medical attention, plus food and water. Airlines that break the rules on tarmac delays must pay a fine of $27,500 per passenger.

This limit only applies to being kept on the tarmac, so airlines can keep you waiting inside the airport for as long as they want.

Airlines must compensate you if they lose your luggage.

If you arrive but your bags are delayed, airlines will pay for reasonable costs associated with waiting for a delayed bag. Alaska Airlines gives passengers a $25 voucher for delays of at least 20 minutes, for example, while Delta gives SkyMiles members 2,500 bonus miles. Some credit cards will also cover incidental expenses for toiletries, clothing and cell phone chargers if bags are delayed, the Points Guy notes.

If your bags are damaged or don’t arrive at all, you’ll get a lot more. Airlines must have a compensation limit a maximum they’re willing to pay for lost bags no lower than $3,500 per passenger for domestic travel or $1,536 for most international travel. Airlines can require to you provide receipts or other proof to get a refund, according to the Department of Transportation.

Travel insurance can also cover lost luggage, so if you’re bringing a lot of expensive jewelry or designer duds, you may wish to purchase a policy that will provide you with appropriate coverage. Just be sure to check policy limits.

This is the one time airlines are required to give you a refund.

Changed your mind about a flight a few hours after booking? You’re in luck. Airlines must give you a grace period of 24 hours to cancel a reservation if you book at least a week prior to your departure date. You should get your refund in four weeks or less after submitting a request, according to the Department of Transportation.

Outside of this grace period, you will likely only get a refund if you bought a refundable ticket or have a death in the family. Some carriers allow you to apply fares towards future flights, even on nonrefundable tickets, however.

If you want to avoid cancellation fees of around $150 per flight, consider buying travel insurance, which costs about 4% to 10% of your total cost, or about $20 to $50 for a $500 flight. The peace of mind it buys can make it well worth the extra cost.

Sign up for the Payoff — your weekly crash course on how to live your best financial life.