How to know when you’re eligible for compensation from an airline

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Flight delays and cancellations
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Many air travelers don’t know their rights as a passenger or when they are eligible for compensation from an airline.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what you may or may not be entitled to if your flight is severely delayed or canceled. As a retired travel agent, here’s what I think you need to know.

Quick links:

What happens if your flight is badly delayed or canceled?

Let’s start out with some facts:

  • Airlines do not and cannot guarantee their schedules due to factors beyond the airlines’ control like bad weather, air traffic delays and mechanical issues.
  • Airlines are not required under federal law to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled. Only certain passengers that are bumped from an oversold flight are eligible for compensation.
  •  There are no federal regulations requiring airlines to put you on another airline’s flight in the event of a lengthy delay or cancellation.
  •  Although the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does not specifically define a significant delay by an airline, it can determine whether you are entitled to a refund on a case by case basis.
  •  In the event of a canceled flight, airlines will rebook passengers on the next available flight (based on seat availability). If you choose not to fly on the rebooked itinerary, the airline will refund the unused ticket (even if non-refundable) along with extra costs incurred for seat selection or a checked bag fee.

Here are a few things you can do if you experience a lengthy delay or a canceled flight

First, always download your carrier’s app and Twitter account before you travel. These are the two best way to stay on top of flight departure times/gates.

If your flight is delayed due to weather, it’s likely that all other flights will be late.

If your flight is delayed indefinitely due to a mechanical issue, or if the flight crew is delayed on an incoming flight, ask the airline to give updates on possible departure times.

When your flight is canceled or delayed and you see a need to rebook your itinerary, get in the counter line and call the airline while in line. This double-duty method may speed up the time to speak with an agent. Another popular way to communicate with your airline is to tweet your predicament and ask for assistance.

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If you find a better flight with another airline, ask the first airline to transfer your ticket (endorse) to an alternative carrier (it pays to jot down alternative airline service going to and from your destination before your departure). However, there is no rule requiring an airline to do this.

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Some airlines will not provide any type of amenities like a meal voucher or a hotel room even if the flight departure is hours late, although it pays to ask (nicely).

Remember that gate employees didn’t cause the flight delay or cancellation. Be extra patient and nice to the people that can help you get to where you’re going!

What happens if you are bumped from a flight?

Airlines can and do oversell seats on popular routes knowing that a few ticketed passengers will become “no-shows” due to unforeseen events such as traffic, a flat tire, a missed connection, etc. But what if every ticketed traveler shows up?

Someone will have to leave the flight. But before a passenger is forced to give up their seat due to overbooking, the carrier must ask first for volunteers to give up their seat for compensation.

Keep in mind that there are two kinds of bumps: voluntary and involuntary. More common is voluntary, when a passenger volunteers to take another flight in exchange for compensation. In 2017, for example, around 94% of bumps were voluntary.

If you are bumped off a flight against your will, you qualify for involuntarily denied boarding compensation if:

  • You have a confirmed reservation.
  • You checked-in for your flight on time and arrived at the departure gate on time.
  • Your ticketed airline cannot get you to your destination within one hour of your flight’s original arrival time.

What kind of compensation can I get if I am involuntarily bumped?

Compensation will vary depending on the length of the delay between the canceled flight and the next available flight the airline rebooks you on. Passengers with a short delay (1-2 hours) will receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of the flight they were bumped from, up to $675. Longer delays (over 2 hours) can result in payments of four times the one-way value of the flight they were bumped from, up to $1,350.

Should you get bumped from an oversold international flight and are delayed 1-4 hours before your protected flight, you are entitled to 200% of the one-way fare but no more than $675. A delay between flights of over four hours will compensate 400% of a one-way fare but no more than $1,350.

Compensation for being bumped or excessively delayed could come in the form of a voucher for future travel on the airline or cash. The latter is rare since airlines are not legally required to pay cash to volunteers. A voucher means you’ll be back as a traveler. Attempt to negotiate a higher pay-off voucher amount, particularly if your flight won’t be until the next day (ask for meal vouchers, too). Ask about all voucher restrictions such as advance purchase, blackout dates, and when the value expires.

When multiple seats are needed — let’s say for an air marshal or pilots/flight crews — an airline is free to set whatever amount of compensation will work to get volunteers. Stories of passengers getting thousands of dollars to forfeit their ticketed flight are true, but not so frequent. As the flight crew announces what they’re willing to compensate for a seat and as the compensation climbs in price, it comes down to a game of who leaps up first with a hand raised that reaps the big bucks.

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What happens if you get stuck on the tarmac?

Unless a tarmac delay is a safety or security risk that prevents the plane from returning to the gate or air traffic control determines the airport would experience a significant interruption of airport operations, the DOT prohibits domestic airlines from remaining on the tarmac for more than 3 hours.

For flights departing from or landing at a U.S. airport, airlines are required to begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off before that 3 hours elapses for domestic flights. It’s 4 hours for international flights.

If the plane returns to the airport gate and a passenger chooses to deplane, the flight crew is not required to let those passengers back on the airplane, nor will their checked bags be offloaded. If the flight is given clearance to take-off, they will leave you high, dry and without your belongings. That’s another reason to bring aboard carry-on bags only!

Passengers held up on the tarmac are entitled to a snack and water no later than two hours after the delay begins. The airline is required to keep the lavatories operable, cabin temperatures comfortable and medical attention available.

Tips for avoiding delayed or canceled flights

In general, you never want to book the last flight of the day because if anything goes wrong, you could be stranded overnight. You should also try to avoid booking the first flight of the day. The rationale behind this is that the flight could be impacted if something went wrong the previous night.

Always try to fly with carry-on bags only! Should you experience a lengthy delay or a canceled flight, you’ll have your things with you versus having your belongings checked and held by your ticketed airline. Your bag will also be with you should your flight be canceled and the next available flight departs in 15 minutes!

Final thought

The future of air travel could change for the better for passengers in the near future. A proposed new law would bring about an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which would increase passenger compensations, restricts high airline fees, and require the refund of baggage fees for lost or delayed baggage, among many other provisions. First introduced in the U.S. Senate July 30, 2019, you can view the legalese here.

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