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Know Your Rights When You Fly

July 26, 2013 Aviation No Comments Email Email

When volatile summer weather grounds a plane, it creates a domino effect of cancelled flights across the country. Add in that nearly 209 million people fly June through August1, and you could easily find that part of your summer adventure may be spent trying to get a seat on another plane.

Just ask Marcy Baustian, a high school teacher who recently spent three weeks leading her French Club students through France, only to have the final leg of the journey back to Des Moines grounded in Detroit for 48 hours. “Getting rebooked was difficult because it’s very tough to find 18 seats on a flight – especially to Des Moines since bigger planes aren’t scheduled through there,” said Baustian.

After spending the night in the Detroit airport, she spent the next day working with the airline to get rebooked on a flight to Kansas City, where parents were willing to drive and pick up their children. That flight was also cancelled due to weather. The group eventually rented a charter bus – after their travel agency called 30 bus companies and offered to cover the expense temporarily. (A claim to cover the cost of the bus is pending with the airline.)

While Baustian and her students’ ordeal was extreme, airline travel often comes with some sort of challenge. “It can be difficult to know when a situation that started as inconvenient has crossed the line into a violation of rights,” says Ann Cosimano, General Counsel for ARAG®, a global provider of legal solutions. “Knowing when to be patient – or when to speak up – can take some of the stress out of travel.” Here are a few reminders of the rights you have when you fly.

When Your Flight is Delayed or Cancelled

  • If your flight is delayed or cancelled for problems beyond anyone’s control, like weather or safety issues, most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight at no charge. They may even book you with another airline without charging you extra. Airlines are not required to provide any amenities, such as meal vouchers or hotel rooms, in this situation.
  • Similarly, if your flight is delayed or cancelled for something the airline could control, such as a maintenance issue, the airline will likely rebook you on the next available flight, either theirs or another airline’s, at no charge. The airline is still not required to provide amenities, however, many will provide meal vouchers and even hotel rooms and grooming kits if your delay causes an unexpected overnight stay.

When You’re Bumped from Your Flight

  • If you are “bumped” for a domestic flight that is oversold, you are likely legally entitled to compensation for a new flight. Generally, when the flight is oversold, the airlines will ask for willing passengers to volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for a later flight and compensation. They may also negotiate with free tickets or travel vouchers. If you accept one of these offers, be sure to ask some deal-breaking questions such as when the ticket expires or if it’s only available certain days of the week or during certain seasons.
  • If no one volunteers and you’re bumped involuntarily, you should receive a written statement from the airline that describes your rights and how the carrier decided which passengers were bumped. If you’re not rebooked and scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, then you are entitled to compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the ticket price and length of delay. To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation and have checked-in with the airline within their deadlines.
  • If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn’t required to pay people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on domestic flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints.

When You’re on the Tarmac

  • If you are delayed on the tarmac of a domestic flight before taking off or after landing, you may have rights if the delay is more than three hours. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless air traffic control or the pilot decides there are reasons related to safety, security or airport operations.
  • If you are delayed on the tarmac of a domestic flight, you are entitled to food and water no later than two hours after the delay begins. Lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.

An additional safeguard for your rights when traveling is to enroll in a legal plan that offers convenient access to a nationwide network of attorneys and legal resources. These types of plans, which are offered by providers like ARAG, give members peace of mind knowing that they’ll have immediate access to professional services and resources when a legal need arises. Legal plans often cost less than a roadside assistance membership and are usually offered through employers or organizations, although some options are also available to individuals. To find out more about how legal plans work, visit www.ARAGgroup.com.

1Airlines for America, http://www.airlines.org/Pages/A4A-Projects-Increase-in-Summer-Travel-as-Record-Number-of-Customers-Fly-Internationally-.aspx. May 2013.

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