You’re at the airport, heading for a dream vacation, and your airline announced it is canceling your flight. What should you do now? And what are your rights anyway?
Unfortunately today, “There are no hard and fast rules to protect customers,” said Cheryl Patterson, who owns global dive travel agency Deep Blue Adventures in Swanton, Ohio. She advises her clients to educate themselves; gather all the information they can before talking to airline agents; and to be part of the problem-solving process. “Educated travelers protect themselves and gain the best vacation experience,” she said
Before airline deregulation, passenger rights’ were governed in the U.S. by the government’s Rule 240 for domestic flights and Rule 80 for international travel. While those terms are still sometimes used, the rules have been replaced by contracts of carriage. Each airline writes their own contract, Patterson said, but they are all similar. “Educated travelers protect themselves and gain the best vacation experience,” she said.
Patterson recommends that travelers familiarize themselves with the contract of carriage for each airline they use. The airlines “do not go out of their way to share the contracts,” but they are posted on each Web site. (For example, Delta Air Lines’ contract is currently at www.delta.com/legal/contract_of_carriage/index.jsp).
The contract covers two main areas: schedule changes and schedule irregularities. The difference: changes are events that occur at least 24 hours before departure, while irregularities happen within 24 hours.
For schedule changes, “There is little the average airline will do, other than book you on the next available flight on their airline,” Patterson said. “You’re stuck.”
Schedule irregularities are typically a more pressing problem, “so it’s important to move quickly,” she said. Airlines generally follow these steps:
• First they try to put you on the next flight on their airline – even busing you to a nearby airport, such as JFK to Newark.
• The second option is booking with another carrier. The contract of carriage gives the airline “sole discretion” for resolving the problem, Patterson said. “Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules” for moving you to another airline, she continued. “They don’t want to do it but if you fight for it, they will often book you on another carrier.”
• As a last resort, if the airline cannot get you to your destination, the customer is entitled to a refund. “Depending on what the contract of carriage says, it may not be a cash payment: it may be a voucher,” Patterson said.
For delays of more than four hours, airlines normally provide a meal voucher, Patterson said, and a hotel voucher for delays between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. However, customers may have to demand vouchers during lengthy delays. In some cases where an airline refuses to cover the hotel cost, agents should provide a list of nearby hotels that offer negotiated “distressed passenger” rates.
Personal technology can also be useful. While waiting in line at the airline counter, Patterson suggests pulling up a copy of the contract of carriage on your laptop, Blackberry or iPhone so you can show it to the agent. “If you used a travel agent, call them and find out what other flights are available,” she said. “Or look on a Web site like Orbitz to see what is available on other carriers.”
If traveling overseas, Patterson said, the same advice typically applies. She said most airlines maintain one contract of carriage for both US and overseas flights – the main exception being Delta. U.S. carriers flying overseas are also governed by any regulations in those countries, she noted.
For example, the European Commission has “a number of rules and regulations — many of which are different from the rest of the world,” said Simon Baker, an airline consultant with Paragonal Consulting in London. “Those rules are rather extensive,” EU Regulation 261/2004 governs passengers’ rights when they are denied boarding against their will, and if flights are delayed or canceled. The EU rules are detailed at http://ec.europa.eu/transport/passengers/air/doc/neb/questions_answers.pdf_reg_2004_261.pdf.
Despite the EC regulations, Baker said, “Many airlines are still reluctant to pay appropriate compensation for delays.” He said a specialist firm called EUclaim was formed to fight for passengers’ financial compensation rights. According to EUclaim’s site (www.euclaim.co.uk), airline passengers whose flights are delayed are entitled to compensation up to 600 Euros.
When travel plans become snarled, Patterson said, she tells her clients to be innovative. “Sometimes the airlines are so busy trying to rebook 130 passengers, they don’t think outside the box,” she said. “Suggest solutions; tell them what you’re willing to do.” She noted one group of clients rented a van and drove from New York to Charlotte to make the connecting flight for their island vacation.
“It shouldn’t fall on the client,” Patterson added. “But the people who come out of this the best are the ones who are prepared and are a bit more imaginative.”