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What are Your 'Rights' When You Fly?

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 (Reuters)

There’s the Bill of Rights, and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

But what about your “rights” when you fly? Do you have any, really? 

With American Airlines filing for bankruptcy protection, and others operating within miniscule margins, its getting harder to fly these days without some turbulence along the way.

What recourse do you have when something goes bump in the flight? You might be surprised to learn that even though the U.S. D.O.T. has recently announced some new passenger regulations, there are probably fewer than you think, and your rights vary depending on the country you’re flying within or from. 

Here is a step-by-step rundown for many common, and not-so-common, scenarios.

Bumping (involuntary denied boarding), Domestic Flights, U.S. 

Scenario: The airline sells more fares than it has seats on your flight. Someone's got to stay behind and that someone is you. 

Recourse: You may be entitled to cash compensation. If you’re bumped from a flight and the airline rebooks you to arrive an hour or less from your original arrival time, there’s no compensation. Two to four hours, you are entitled to as much as $650 (the actual amount will be up to 200% of the applicable one-way fare); over four hours, up to $1300 or 400% of the one-way fare. You’re entitled to receive payment in cash. Do not accept a travel voucher since these often come with restrictions and extra hassle. Take the money and run. Read more about bumping here.  

Bumping, International Flights from the U.S. 

Scenario: You're bumped from a flight from the U.S. to a foreign airport 

Recourse: Same compensation levels, but the lower amount applies to arriving one to four hours after your original time and the higher amount to over four hours. Taxiway/Runway delays Scenario: You're stuck on the plane for more than three hours before take off or upon landing. Recourse: You have the right to request to deplane after your domestic flight has been delayed on the taxiway (a.k.a., the "tarmac") or runway for more than three hours; or four hours if it's an international flight. This doesn't mean that you'll actually get off the plane (there are a few loopholes in the regulation). 

Delayed Flights 

Scenario: You’re off to a wedding, an important meeting, or Uncle Sid’s funeral, but your flight is delayed for hours or canceled and you’re not going to arrive in time, so why go at all? 

Recourse: Why go on a "futile" trip? Under most airlines’ contracts of carriage (see links to these), under some circumstances, even if you’re flying on a non-refundable ticket, you can tell the airline to take a hike and get your money and ancillary fees back. Delta, for example, stipulates in its contract that "in the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket." Most airlines have a "Rule 260" or similar in their contracts covering this situation (read more about this). 

Canceled Flights 

Scenario: Your flight is canceled. 

Recourse: There’s no government regulation that applies. Before airlines were deregulated, there was one, however. It was called Rule 240 and you can still see it in some airlines' contracts of carriage, although it's often observed more in the breach than the practice these days. It states that your original airline will attempt to rebook you on a competing airline's next flight out if that flight will get you to your destination sooner. But Delta's contract is typical: "Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to carry passengers and their baggage according to Delta's published schedules and the schedule reflected on the passenger's ticket, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft type, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta's published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Except as stated in this rule, Delta will have no liability for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule for any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination." Nuff said? 

Additionally, some airlines, in their contracts, state that they’ll put you up in a hotel and provide meals, with stipulations. But Delta, for one, states that there’s no liability if the flight irregularity is caused by a “force majeure” (i.e., act of God) event, however no matter what the cause if travel is interrupted. 

Lost Luggage, Domestic U.S.  

Scenario: An airline loses your checked bags. 

Recourse: Recently revised U.S. D.O.T. rules require the airline to reimburse you up to $3300 per incident but only for domestic travel. However, the airline may ask for receipts or proof of purchase for claimed items, and may depreciate the value of the suitcase and its contents. 

Lost Luggage, Flying Internationally 

Scenario: You're flying on a trip from a foreign country or from the U.S. on an international itinerary and an airline loses your checked bag. 

Recourse: Unfortunately, a different set of rules applies from domestic U.S. travel, and the liability limits may be considerably lower. (It's always wise to take advantage of the airline's excess valuation option when flying internationally. Reimbursement depends on the airline and the country you're flying from or within. Read more

Delayed Luggage, Domestic U.S.  

Scenario: The airline hasn't exactly declared your bag "lost" yet but it sure didn't arrive at the luggage carousel. 

Recourse: This is somewhat of a murky area. You can't ask the airline for lost luggage compensation until it admits that it can't find your bag, but what if you were flying in your gym clothes (which we advise against anyway if you want to nab a discretionary upgrade) and have an important business meeting that evening? 

In their contracts, some airlines state they will allow you to purchase reasonable replacement items, and recent U.S. D.O.T. directives have gotten tougher on airlines in such circumstances. A D.O.T. warning to airlines dated Oct. 9, 2009 says that "carriers should remain willing to cover all reasonable, actual and verifiable expenses related to baggage loss, damage or delay [emphasis added] up to" the maximum $3,300 limit on domestic flights. Just be reasonable (Banana Republic, not Prada) and keep receipts. 

You Buy the Wrong Flight 

Scenario: You hit the "buy" button on the airline's website and immediately realize you chose the wrong dates or destinations, or buy two seats when you only wanted one. 

Recourse: As long as you make the change within 24 hours, you can either cancel your non-refundable fare or rebook different dates. New U.S. D.O.T. regulations require airlines to hold a reservation for you for 24 hours without paying for the fare so that you can shop around (and correct any mistakes you might have made). 

Seat Selection 

Scenario: Well ahead of the flight, you reserve an aisle seat, but on the day of the flight you’re moved to a middle seat. 

Recourse: None really. Airlines reserve the right to assign you to any seat they choose. 

Routing Changes 

Scenario: You buy a $130 round-trip fare from New York to Denver on a nonstop flight. A few weeks before departure, the airline informs you that you’re now flying on regional jets with a connection with different departure and arrival times, even though it still flies the route nonstop (but now the nonstop fare is $700).

Recourse: You can insist on a refund of the fare, but you have no contractual or governmental right to be rebooked on the original flight. However, sometimes persistence pays off and the airline might put you back on the nonstop. 

Schedule Changes 

Scenario: You buy a ticket to Bogota in March, and just before you’re about to take off the airline sends you an email announcing that they now fly to Bogota 5 times-a-week instead of daily. So you’ll be spending an extra, unplanned hotel night plus meals at your own expense. Or your 6 a.m. departure is now leaving at 11 a.m., but that means you’re going to miss your cruise or the wedding. 

Recourse: Do you have a right to ask the airline to compensate you? Unfortunately, no. And most travel insurance policies won't cover you, either. At best, you'll be offered a refund and told to book a last minute flight on another airline at considerably higher cost. This is one of the most pressing areas for new airline regulation, listed in Airfarewatchdog's 12 new airline regulations we need now.  

Sharing Your Seat with a "Passenger of Size" 

Scenario: You're in the dreaded middle seat and a clinically obese passenger sits down next to you, raises the armrest, and spills over into a portion of your seat, squishing into the window seat passenger. 

Recourse: While many airlines have language in their contracts of carriage that they will refuse to transport passengers who cannot fit into a single seat, or require them to buy two seats, such rules are rarely enforced. You can request to be reseated (perhaps in business or first class if there are no seats available in economy class), or to be put on the next flight out, but that's about it. Some U.S. airlines have rules about this in their contracts, but they're rarely enforced, and in Canada passengers of size are not required  to buy two seats under disability clauses, so you’re out of luck. Flying within or from Europe: even if you're not a citizen of the European Union, a completely different (and more stringent) set of passenger rights applies. Flying within or from Canada: again, a different set of rules

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com. Follow Airfarewatchdog on Twitter @airfarewatchdog for late-breaking unadvertised airfare sales and air travel advice.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.