Flying the Unfriendly Skies: 5 Passenger Rights Every Traveler Should Know
Whether you’re stuck on the tarmac or your luggage goes AWOL, airlines are required to help
For months you’ve been looking forward to your vacation, but so far it’s been one trip up after another. Your flight was delayed and you sat on the runway for hours. Then your bags didn’t show up. Driving might have been easier.
Air travel sometimes can be more turbulent on the ground than in the air. Usually problems are beyond your control, such as weather conditions or mechanical problems with the plane.
While there’s nothing you can do about, say, an impending thunderstorm, your air travel experience will go more smoothly if you know your rights as a passenger when you bump up against these common glitches.
Remember the passengers who were stuck for 11 hours on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport in December 2010? This incident prompted the Department of Transportation (DOT) to mandate airlines to allow passengers to get off a grounded plane after specific amounts of time.
If after you board and buckle the plane doesn’t take off for three hours if you’re on a domestic flight (four if you're flying International), you have the right to go back to the terminal and wait there. Airlines also are required to provide food and water to passengers at the two-hour mark of a tarmac delay, allow access to bathrooms and update passengers every half hour.
Getting bumped because of overbooking
Overbooking is not illegal. Most airlines overbook flights to make up for no-shows. If you volunteer to give up your seat on an overbooked flight, the DOT requires the airline to compensate you.
Unfortunately, you can also be bumped involuntarily. If that happens, you have a right to compensation equal to the value of your ticket up to $650 if the airline rebooks you within one to two hours of your original arrival time. This is a cash-only compensation, not a travel voucher. For delays of more than two hours, compensation doubles to up to $1,300, according to the DOT.
Your flight time is changed
If a flight is cancelled or delayed to a time that’s not convenient for you, you have the right to get your money back or ask to be rerouted at no extra cost.
You realize you booked the wrong flight
Oops! You chose a flight that leaves at 9 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. Or you booked for the wrong day or through the wrong airport. If you realize your mistake fast, you should be okay. Most airlines offer a full refund within 24 hours of booking as long as your ticket is for seven days ahead of your departure. In that case, the DOT requires the carriers to change or cancel reservation without charging a cancellation or change fee.
Your luggage is lost or delayed
You’ve landed, but your luggage is nowhere to be seen. Head to the airline counter asap.
If your bags are just delayed but you need to purchase replacement items, the DOT has ruled that the airline must compensate you. The amount reimbursed is subject to negotiation and you may have to fight to get your money back, so keep all receipts. Ask the airline if they will deliver your bag to you free of charge once it arrives. (Some airlines will charge a fee.)
If your bag is lost or damaged, you have a right to compensation for up to $3,400. Airlines also are required to refund any luggage fees you’ve paid. To start the process, submit a detailed claim with the airline. You should know, warns the DOT, that carriers don’t automatically pay for every claim amount. Like insurance companies, airlines will consider the depreciated value of your possessions, not the original price. It takes an airline between four weeks to three months to pay a claim. The DOT has a website set up specifically to deal with consumer complaints. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Preventing luggage problems
Want to increase the chances of having your luggage arrive when and where you do? Take these steps.
Be on time. If you cut getting to the airport too close, even if you make the flight, your bag may not.
Keep tabs on your luggage. For peace of mind, you can purchase a device to track your bag, such as TrakDot or SuperSmartTag. These allow you to track your luggage via a mobile app while you’re in the air and after you land.
Don’t overpack. Stuffing a suitcase beyond its limits can cost you in overweight luggage fees. A too-full bag also can spring open, causing you to lose personal items in transit, says the DOT.
Related: Germ-Free Flying
Don’t check your valuables. Pack valuable, fragile, perishable and critical items in your carry on, advises the DOT. Do not pack cash, jewelry, passports, prescription medications or keys in checked luggage.
ID your luggage. When packing, attach tags with your contact information to the outside and the inside of each bag. The DOT advises including your home address and the address of your destination, though some travelers include only a cell phone number and the address of their destination to avoid alerting would-be burglars that their home is . The DOT suggests also getting a claim check for each bag you check, as you may need them for a future claim.
Check for missing or broken items if your bag arrives open or damaged. If there's a problem, the DOT suggests calling the airline immediately and making a note of the time, day and person you spoke with. Follow up with a certified letter explaining the situation.
Related: 7 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag