As hundreds of thousands of passengers experienced flight delays and cancellations this week, TPG keeps getting the same question: “What are airline passengers’ rights?”
It’s not a simple question to answer, but essentially right now, airline passengers in the U.S. don’t have many true rights during what is called colloquially an “act of God.” Airlines often blame the weather when almost anything goes wrong — and truthfully, the weather is often involved, at least as a triggering event. That’s certainly the case this time, as summer thunderstorms pounded the country and disrupted travel from Chicago to Newark.
Bad weather can have cascading, nationwide effects on airline operations. So, sometimes you might run into a “weather”-related cancellation or delay even though it’s completely sunny outside your window.
New air passenger rights rules are currently under consideration by the U.S. Department of Transportation, but even the rules the department is actively considering wouldn’t apply to extreme weather situations.
This is where having a travel credit card that offers trip protection and covers weather-related scenarios can help. The card can offset the cost of unexpected expenses you incur (like a hotel night, ground transportation and unexpected meals) to help close the gap.
While the current list of airline passenger rights is small, some rules are in place to help with travel disruptions. Here’s what you are currently entitled to when things go sideways with your air travel plans as well as what could be coming down the road (or skies) in the future.
You’re entitled to a refund
In accordance with the DOT policy, every airline passenger is entitled to a cash refund when their flight is canceled, significantly delayed, or when the schedule is significantly changed … if they ultimately choose not to fly.
That goes for weather disruptions or those that are technically the airline’s responsibility, like maintenance.
Now, a few caveats on that refund:
- You’re only entitled to a refund for the unused portion of your trip: If you fly from New York to Washington, D.C., your return trip gets canceled, and you decide to take the train home, you’re owed a refund only for the return portion of your trip.
- If you accept the airline’s rebooking offer, you’re not refund eligible.
- The DOT does not actually define what constitutes a significant delay or schedule change, electing to determine whether a customer is owed a refund on a case-by-case basis. The Biden administration is aiming to provide some clarity on this, though.
Compensation during airline delays
At the moment, the federal government does not technically require airlines to compensate passengers for flight delays that are the airline’s responsibility. The Biden administration does hope to change this, though. More on that in a moment.
However, as shown on the DOT’s airline customer service dashboard, most major U.S. airline provides meals, meal cash or vouchers when delays cause a three-hour wait or longer.
Additionally, most major carriers guarantee hotel accommodations when delays lead to an unexpected overnight stay, plus the necessary ground transportation to and from the hotel. The only airline that doesn’t guarantee this, according to the dashboard? Frontier Airlines.
Remember that these are for so-called “controllable” delays — the ones that are technically the airline’s fault, like aircraft maintenance or a staffing problem.
Notably, these guarantees do not apply to flights affected by bad weather or air traffic control problems.
Compensation for airline cancellations
Like with delays, airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers for canceled flights. However, most major U.S. carriers do provide some guarantees for the cancellations deemed to be their responsibility. (Again, this doesn’t apply to weather disruptions.)
All 10 carriers evaluated by the DOT guarantee meals, meal cash or vouchers when cancellations lead to a three-hour wait or longer for a new flight.
Every airline — except Frontier — guarantees complimentary hotel accommodations for these covered cancellations leading to an unexpected overnight stay, plus ground transportation to and from the hotel.
The 24-hour refund rule
Let’s say you book an airline ticket, then find a better deal. Or, you realize your just-booked itinerary won’t work for you, or you selected something you didn’t intend.
There’s good news: Per DOT policy, in the U.S., airlines must do one of two things: Provide penalty-free refunds to passengers who cancel within 24 hours or allow customers to place a 24-hour hold on a ticket without purchasing it.
This goes even for basic economy tickets and those that are technically “nonrefundable.”
Several airlines provide for changes and cancelations beyond 24 hours, depending on the fare type, but they all have to give that 24-hour window of some sort.
Those rules came into effect in 2012 when the DOT ordered airlines to allow passengers to cancel a nonrefundable booking or reservation within 24 hours of purchase as long as the booking is made at least seven days before the flight.
Tarmac delay rights
Airlines should not leave you on a plane on the tarmac for hours-long delays. Airlines have gotten much better about letting passengers off planes if they can’t get clearance to take off in a reasonable amount of time because the DOT cracked down on long tarmac delays by issuing rules in 2010.
Airlines are now required to provide food and drinking water after passengers have been sitting for two hours or more on a plane on the ground. Airlines must allow passengers to get off by the three-hour mark for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. If the airline doesn’t follow these rules, it is subject to large fines from the DOT.
Interestingly, some have argued that these rules have actually made delays worse. Either way, passengers have a right to avoid sitting indefinitly on the tarmac, unable to get off the plane.
New airline passenger rights under consideration
While the majority of U.S. airlines guarantee things like meal vouchers and a complimentary hotel night when they are responsible for a major delay or cancellation, the Biden administration wants to go even further.
In May, the DOT announced a plan to propose rules that would require airlines to compensate passengers for these so-called “controllable” cancellations and delays. (Again, this wouldn’t apply to bad weather and other factors outside the airline’s control.)
As part of the proposed rulemaking, the DOT also hopes to provide more clarity around the types of delays or cancellations that would make a passenger eligible for compensation.
If ultimately approved, the rule would seemingly bring consumer protections a bit more in line with those in the European Union under the provision known as EU261.
A DOT spokesperson told TPG, “DOT has taken unprecedented action to protect and expand travelers rights when airlines cause cancellations and delays. Before Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg was sworn in, none of the largest U.S. airlines guaranteed meals, hotels, or transportation when they were the cause of a cancellation — now 10 guarantee meals and transportation and nine offer hotels. Additionally, this Administration has helped return over a billion dollars in refunds to travelers, has fined airlines at all-time highs, and is continuing to fight to expand passengers’ rights.”
Major airline trade groups have criticized the proposals, pointing to existing guarantees by airlines for meals, hotels and ground transportation; they warn that regulations could drive up costs for all passengers.
The DOT has separately proposed requiring airlines to proactively inform passengers if they’re entitled to a refund and to refund for paid services (like Wi-Fi) that the customer doesn’t actually receive.
Will there be a new airline passenger bill of rights?
Some political leaders want to go even further than the current air passenger rules being proposed by the DOT.
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Ed Markey of Massachusetts have written a law that would enshrine rights to airline passengers — much as the Bill of Rights protects the rights of Americans.
“I am taking this renewed debacle as more evidence of the need to provide not only refunds but also additional compensation like the $1,350 if flights are delayed more than four hours, which is part of my bill of rights. $1,350 on top of refunds and alternative transportation expenses. Because the only message that the airlines seem to understand is dollars and cents,” Blumenthal shared with TPG.
“And if they have to pay a penalty beyond refunds and beyond paying for alternative transportation, it will get their attention. And also giving passengers the right to sue, the right to legal recourse is very important because the Department of Transportation isn’t always as vigorous as it should be.”
Under the proposed legislation, airlines would be required to refund tickets for flights delayed as little as one hour and provide alternative transportation. They would also be required to pay for food and hotels. Finally, the bill would forbid airlines from using weather as an excuse for delays and cancellations when it’s actually their fault.
A challenge for passengers is that, even with that proposed legislation, there is an “out” for weather or other acts of God. It’s not clear if the current situation or the meltdown Southwest Airlines suffered during Christmas would be considered weather-related or not for the purposes of coverage by that bill of rights.
But these proposed new airline passenger bills of rights are a long way from passage. Airlines for America has called the legislation “short-sighted” and promised to campaign against it.
We wish we had better news to share with you, but the current list of airline passenger rights is short.
Regarding delays and cancellations due to weather, the airlines have a lot of wiggle room in compensating passengers. That said, just like during Southwest’s Christmas week meltdown, we are hopeful the airlines will do the right thing and make consumers whole for costs like meals, lodging and alternate flights in the end.
That said, you will need to be your own best advocate these days. Keep a record of all expenses and report your case directly to the airline for compensation. If you don’t get relief, you can always contact your representatives in Congress and even file a complaint with the DOT.
The worst thing they could tell you is no. Even then, if you used the right credit card to book your ticket, you’ll still have an avenue to recoup some of your additional expenses.
Additional reporting by Sean Cudahy.
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