Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know

Everyone is talking about the viral news story on the 70-year-old doctor who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. The story raises several questions. Did United act illegally? Did the passenger have a choice? Can the airlines really ask people to leave the plane?

Let’s break it down.

First, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are entering into a “contract of carriage” with the airline. That contract covers everything from smoking policy to service animals to surcharges to – you guessed it – involuntarily denial of boarding (bumping).

Passenger Rights #1 – Upon request, the airline must provide you with their contract of carriage.

By law, they have to provide you with this contract if you want it. That said, unless you have a penchant for reading page after page of legalese, you might not really want it. Just be aware that it spells out their policies in detail and you can ask them for a copy if need be. You may be able to access the contracts of carriage online, too.  United Airlines’ contract of carriage makes for great bedtime reading. (Yawn.)

So, did the airline have the right to ask passengers to voluntarily give up their seats? Yes, because the passengers agreed to that possibility when they purchased their tickets.

Initially, the crew offered $400 compensation for those who would be willing to leave the plane. No one took the bait. Then they doubled the offer to $800. Still no one took the bait. No other planes were departing until the next day, so getting bumped would mean a significant delay and an overnight stay. I’d do it for $800. Or I would have, before I researched what the law requires. Which leads me to…

Passenger Rights #2 – If overbooking causes a delay of an hour or more, you can receive financial compensation, up to $1350.

overbooked flight passenger rights

For compensation rates, the base figure is the cost of the one-way flight to the first stop (or to the destination if it’s a direct flight).

For delays of more than one hour but less than two hours, the compensation rate is 200% of the base figure, up to $675. Say you’re flying from Boston to Los Angeles with a stop in Chicago and you get bumped from the first leg of your trip. You’re able to get on a different flight to Chicago, but you’ll be arriving 90 minutes later than you would have on the initial flight. Your maximum compensation would be double the cost of the Boston to Chicago leg. (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the range is more than one but less than four hours.)

For more significant delays of two hours or more, you can receive four times the cost of that leg of the trip, up to a maximum of $1350. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: $1350. If your direct flight from New York to San Francisco cost $338 or more, you can receive a reimbursement of $1350 by getting off the plane. If it was a $100 flight, you would get $400. (Note: these figures apply to domestic flights. For international flights the criterion is four hours or more.)

As you can see from the news story above, the airline isn’t going to ask you to get off the plane and then make it rain $100 bills down on your head as you leave. You need to ask for full compensation, and be clear that you know what the magic formula is.

Passenger Rights #3 – The airline must issue the compensation check within 24 hours.

You will receive compensation in the form of a check. It is your right to receive that check right there in the airport. However, if you’re booked on an alternate flight that departs before you receive the check, the airline must send it to you within 24 hours.

Passenger Rights #4 – You do not have to take an airfare voucher in lieu of payment.

The airline may offer a voucher for free airfare instead of a check payment. In this instance you need to know two things: first, the value of the transportation credit must be equal to or greater than the monetary compensation you would have received. Second, you don’t have to accept. You are within your rights to decline the airfare voucher and request monetary compensation instead.

Passenger Rights #5 – If your flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund.

passenger rights flight cancellation

In the event of a flight cancellation, you will not receive compensation as such. However, you can receive a full refund (even if it’s a non-refundable ticket) or book a new ticket at no additional cost to you.

Passenger Rights #6 – You do not have to stay on the plane indefinitely if it’s sitting on the tarmac.

During a lengthy tarmac delay in the U.S. (upon either arrival or departure), airlines may not keep you on a plane for more than three hours (domestic flight) or four hours (international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish, subject to security and safety considerations. Each airline must provide food and water after two hours of delay. They must also provide updates to passengers every 30 minutes, and assure that airplane lavatories are operable. It’s important to note that when an airline violates the tarmac rules, you receive no compensation. Instead, the DOT fines the airline. (Small comfort, I know.)

Passenger Rights #7 – If you cancel within 24 hours of booking, you can receive a full refund.

The airline cannot assess charges, fees or penalties for canceling an airline reservation if your departure is at least seven days away and you are canceling within 24 hours of making the reservation. After 24 hours have passed, you can expect some fees. This is great news for anyone who books a flight on Tuesday evening and discovers on Wednesday morning that there’s a cheaper fare.

Passenger Rights #8 – You can receive compensation if the airline loses your luggage, even temporarily.

If you arrive at your destination but your luggage doesn’t, notify a baggage representative right away. Then ask about the airline’s reimbursement guidelines. Typically, reimbursements only cover basic toiletries and essential items. Make sure you keep all receipts for your purchases, so that you can submit them for reimbursement.

passenger rights lost luggage baggage

If, on the other hand, your luggage has gone to the land of single socks (i.e., disappeared and never to be seen again), and you traveled within the US, the airline is required to reimburse you for your belongings, up to $3300. However, the airline may request receipts or proof of purchase for the claimed items. Even then, they will only reimburse the depreciated value of your suitcase and its contents. It really helps to have a list of everything you packed (if not receipts) for this purpose.

The Flip Side of the Coin

And that covers most of your rights as a passenger. However, the airlines have rights too, and passengers have some responsibilities. They are:

  1. Airlines reserve the right to change routes and/or schedules at any time and for any reason. Yes, I agree, it sucks. American Airlines did that to us on our trip to England last fall. I not only spent way too much time in the airport, I also lost about five hours of planned sightseeing. The only recourse you have if this happens to you is to cancel and re-book at your expense. The only good news is that, in this situation, they can’t charge you any fees for canceling.
  2. Airlines reserve the right to choose which passengers to bump if no one volunteers to give up their seat. This is what happened with the United Airlines flight. No one volunteered to leave the plane, so they chose who would. The process for choosing varies by airline. Some operate on a first come, first served basis. Others give priority to first class ticket holders, people with disabilities, and families with children. Yet others go by how much the passenger paid for their ticket.
  3. As passengers, we are responsible for complying with any instructions that the flight crew gives us. The ugly situation with the United flight could have been avoided if the passenger left the plane when asked. Sure, he thought he needed to be on that flight because he had important things to do the next day. I’m willing to bet the other people on that plane thought the exact same thing about themselves. Otherwise, they would have volunteered to get off the plane and taken the $800 they were offered.
  4. There are extenuating circumstances in which you can be kept waiting on the tarmac in excess of what is allowed. You may be kept waiting on the tarmac longer than is allowed in either of two possible scenarios. First, if the pilot determines there is a safety or security-related reason why the aircraft cannot leave the tarmac. And second, if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the gate would significantly disrupt airport operations.

Air travel can put people’s nerves on edge like few other things – that goes for crew and passengers. It’s important to remember that everyone wants to have the safest, smoothest trip possible, and to work toward that end. Knowing your rights and responsibilities will help make a less-than-ideal travel experience more tolerable.

9 Replies to “Airline Passenger Rights – What You Need to Know”

  1. This was very informational and a good read, especially after the media has blown this whole United Airlines mess out of proportion (per usual). I do not believe the man was treated properly, however, I would have (angrily) gotten up and walked off the plane if I was chosen and that was the rule. Life isn’t fair sometimes, deal with it.

  2. This article was very important to read especially in light of recent events in the industry. I felt quite a lot so I know most of these but as a first time flyer, they might not know their rights. Everyone who flies should know their rights and responsibilities!

  3. I was not aware of many of those and I guess many people aren’t either. Thanks for writing this post. It puts all the events in another perspective.

  4. This was a really good article, and very helpful. When you book flights away, I guess you don’t really think of any of these scenarios because you just assume that everything is going to go smoothly? It’s really worth knowing your rights though, so thanks for writing.

  5. Wow. What an insightful, informative and useful post. Thank you! It’s always great to have a reminder of what our rights are or that we have these contracts we can refer to. Will keep all these points in mind.

  6. I fly a lot and never had to deal with any of this. This is why I actually do not know my rights and what I need to do in case of a problem or issue. Maybe it will be too late. I think this outlines very well why I (and other travellers) should inform themselves of their rights and grounds. Thanks for sharing them already. Very useful

  7. There’s so much that we miss out on to skip all the tedious reading of policies. It truly pays to be aware and help yourself and your co-passengers in such situations! What happened was unfortunate, but this post helped me discover so much that I didn’t know about.
    Thanks for this!


  8. good to know ! I’m more of a road trip type of gal, but these are all great things to know the few times that I do fly. Esp. the lost luggage compensation .. I know too many people who have had to deal with that!

  9. Really important and informative read! Thank you for writing and sharing this! It’s interesting to know that an airline should give you compensation for lost baggage. I wonder if that’s only in America? SAS recently lost my luggage for a week, and they offered nothing… I asked so many reps so many times.

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