When we buy an airplane ticket from Point A to Point B, we usually get there without incident. Aside from a few delays, the odd cancellation, or the occasional lost bag, airlines generally do what they say what they’re going to do.
Still, one airline industry expert believes that most fliers have no idea how vulnerable we all are to the whims of these multibillion-dollar airlines, and how much power they have over us.
“You have virtually no rights,” travel writer Joe Brancatelli, founder of the business travel site JoeSentMe, tells Yahoo Travel. “If the airlines can screw you, they will.”
Of course, no one’s implying that airlines are evil entities out to toy with you and swindle you out of you money. But in a worst-case scenario, in the rare case when circumstances pit you against a major airline, Brancatelli suggests you recognize that the deck may be stacked against you.
Here are eight scary secrets that travelers may not know about airlines:
1. You signed a contract with the airline, whether you know it or not.
“When you buy a ticket, you’re technically agreeing to the airline’s contract of carriage,” Brancatelli says. The contract of carriage, or COC, is a document put out by airlines that is effectively their contract with their passengers. And since each airline drafts its own COC, it shouldn’t surprise you that it’s heavily tilted in the airline’s favor.
“The airlines pretty much write the contracts that you agree to,” says Brancatelli. “And we passengers treat them just like we treat cellphone contracts: We don’t read them. And that’s where most of the bizarre stuff is buried.”
Airlines post their contracts of carriage online. And the Big Three U.S.-based carriers — American, Delta, and United — have similar policies and include similar language in their COCs. While steeped in legalese, they make for some intriguing reading because of the interesting (and slightly unnerving) nuggets they include. Such as…
2. The airlines don’t really have to take you anywhere.
Brancatelli warns that your ticket is not a contract, and the arrival times and destinations printed on it aren’t binding. “The airlines say in their contract of carriage that they have no duty to honor their posted schedule, which means you can’t complain that they’re 11 hours late — they have no duty to take you where the ticket says you’re going,” he says.
Look closely at the contracts of carriage and you’ll see the airlines give themselves one big out that allows them to opt out of taking you where you want to go, when you want to go. The Big Three all have language in their COCs that, with slight variation, mimics the following: "Times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Schedules are subject to change without notice.” They also say the airline “may alter or omit the stopping places shown on the ticket in case of necessity.” Guess who gets to define “necessity” (hint: it’s not you).
“Their contract says, ‘We know what the ticket says, but if we don’t want to fly you to Peoria, we’re not going to fly you to Peoria,’” Brancatelli says of the airlines. "And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
It’s obvious the airlines include such language to protect themselves from overly litigious passengers who would almost certainly try to sue over a weather-related cancellation or a flight that was diverted to another city due to a medical emergency or security scare. Brancatelli acknowledges that airlines aren’t seeking carte blanche to fly passengers wherever they want to on a whim. "I’m not saying the airlines routinely take people who are planning to fly to Peoria and dump them in Phoenix,” he says. “But they claim the right to do it. And people should know that the ticket gives them virtually no protection.”
3. Class mapping.
“Class mapping is a totally different category of egregious,” Brancatelli says about a standard airline practice few travelers know about. The "class” in “class mapping” doesn’t refer to different levels of airline service — first class, business class, economy, etc. — but rather to different fare classes airlines charge for any given flight. With class mapping, Brancatelli says, passengers who book a flight with multiple stops are automatically bumped into the highest fare class for each segment of that flight.
Say you’re searching online to book a flight from Peoria to St. Petersburg. A direct flight from small-town Illinois to Russia is hard to come by, so you’re shown flights that connect through, hypothetically, New York.
“Let’s say between Peoria and New York, there’s a $99 fare in Fare Class XYZ,” says Brancatelli (in their booking systems, airlines assign each fare class a letter or letters). “But from New York to St. Petersburg, the only fare that’s available is a fare in the M class, which is higher priced. The computer will go back to the Peoria to New York part of your flight, reprice it at the higher price in the M class, and that’s the fare they will show you [for the entire trip]. That’s class mapping. The airlines will automatically bump you into the highest fare class on any one segment they book for you.”
So if you’re booking a flight with one or more connections, Brancatelli says, you are vulnerable to class mapping. “On a simple journey it may mean a couple of bucks,” he says. “But on a longer-haul international journey, we may be talking about hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars.”
How do you protect yourself from class mapping? It’s possible, but it takes some effort. Brancatelli recommends going online and comparing the overall Peoria-to-St. Petersburg fare the airline quotes you against the individual fares you’d get if you were to book separate flights from Peoria to New York and from New York to St. Petersburg. Whichever option is the cheapest is the one you go with.
4. Flying is a cattle call.
“There are federal regulations about how much space you must give cattle when you’re transporting them, but there’s no federal regulation about how much legroom the airline has to give you."
That’s true: Regulations mandate a minimum amount of space that livestock are allowed on trains and trucks when they’re being transported. One consumer group, FlyersRights.org, is lobbying for federal seat standards on airplanes. But for now, at least when it comes to the room we have on flights, humans are at the mercy of airlines, especially the budget ones with notoriously cramped seats. "Livestock we protect,” says Brancatelli. “Human beings, we leave them to bend both arms on Spirit Airlines.”
5. Tickets are no longer exchangeable.
There was a time when, if your flight was canceled and the gate agent was feeling charitable, your airline would rebook you on another airline’s flight at no additional charge. That practice was called interlining, and it’s fast becoming a relic of air travel.
Brancatelli remembers the good old days: “When there was a cancellation, Delta would say, ‘Sorry, we had to cancel our flight. But I see in the computer that American Airlines is flying in an hour, so we’re gonna get you on that flight.’ Now, their answer is, 'Sorry, pal. Tickets are no longer exchangeable among airlines.’“
Brancatelli says the lower-priced budget airlines like Southwest never had interlining agreements. As for the Big Three, which used to do it routinely, their cooperation on such matters is ending too. Earlier this year, Delta and American announced an end to their longtime interlining arrangement. That means that should a cancellation force you to seek out a ticket on another airline, you’ll likely have to buy that ticket out of your own pocket.
"Now, your airline ticket is only good on the airline that wrote it,” Brancatelli says.
6. Good luck taking the airlines to court.
During any sort of customer service dispute, consumers often relish saying, “I’ll see you in court!” But if your dispute is with a major airline, you can expect the airline to say, “Good luck with that.”
Brancatelli says that’s because in all but the most clear-cut, smallest-level disputes — which he says can end up in small claims court — passenger vs. airline lawsuits go to federal court.
“Whenever you question the airlines beyond what they’re willing to be questioned about, they say, 'Sue us. Go ahead. Lots of luck in federal court,’” he says. And a federal-court lawsuit is a long, expensive, time-consuming nightmare that often does not end well for the passenger.
Case in point:
7. The Supreme Court says your frequent flier miles aren’t your miles.
One airline passenger famously made his dispute with his airline into a federal case — and lost big time. The case was Northwest vs. Ginsberg, in which a rabbi named S. Binyomin Ginsberg took Northwest Airlines (which has since been taken over by Delta) to court for canceling his frequent flier account and frequent flier miles and for revoking his Platinum Elite status. The airline says it acted against him because he’d complained excessively and was demanding too much compensation for perceived inconveniences. Ginsberg, in turn, claimed the airline got rid of him as part of a cost-cutting measure. The case made it to the United States Supreme Court, where the normally divided justices issued a unanimous 9-0 decision against Ginsberg, saying the airline was within its rights to bounce him from its frequent flier program.
“You do not own your frequent flier miles,” says Brancatelli. “The airlines claim it’s absolutely their property. They can do whatever they want: They can take them away from you, retroactively close your account — they can do any of these things.”
8. Even if your carry-on bag is “regulation” doesn’t mean it’s getting on an airplane.
You slavishly measured your carry-on bag. You placed it in the little measuring bin in the terminal. But then you get to the gate and the flight attendant says, “Sorry, but you can’t bring that aboard” — even though that same bag has been carried aboard dozens of previous flights.
Turns out, following all the carry-on rules doesn’t mean your carry-on is getting on. "None of their published rules about carry-on bags can be enforced by you,“ says Brancatelli. "None.”
Go back to the contracts of carriage. Most airlines include the size limits for carry-on bags in their COCs. But then they include a clause similar to what’s in United’s COC: “UA reserves the right in its sole and absolute discretion to determine the suitability and place of storage of any items to be carried in the cabin of the aircraft.” Note the use of the phrase “sole and absolute discretion.” In short, that means the airline employees make the final call as to which bags get on board the aircraft.
Brancatelli says it’s a frequent complaint. He says: “Business travelers tell me, 'This carry-on’s been with me for 25 years. It fits in the sizer. It meets the rules the airline publishes.’ And the flight attendant or gate agent says, 'I don’t want this bag in the cabin.’ And if you don’t check it, not only do they have the right to deny you passage, they will claim you’re interfering with the flight and call a cop and have you arrested.”
So how do you deal with these shocking realities of air travel? Brancatelli says there isn’t much you can do. Arguing is often pointless, especially if you get the wrong employee. “If they’re in a bad mood, they will call a cop and you will be arrested,” he says. “Don’t be an airline lawyer.” Instead, it’s best to do what the airline crew tells you to do and take up the matter with the airline after the flight.
Again, chances are you’re going to fly and everything’s going to go according to plan — yours and the airline’s. We should add that most of the airline workers we encounter are extremely nice and helpful people. But in dealing with the airlines, it’s always good to know where you stand. And the reality is, just as when you’re flying in an airplane, you’re not standing on solid ground.
More from Yahoo! Travel