We get plenty of questions, but one we recently received deserves a wider audience:
What things are most likely to trip up a passenger in a contract of carriage?
All airline contracts of carriage are contracts of adhesion, involving no bargaining power by the consumer. Read more about adhesion here. You agree to the airline’s rules or you don’t fly.
It’s not uniform. Each airline has its own contract.
So where is a particular contract of carriage located on an airline website?
Again, it varies:
United: Very bottom of main page (requires scrolling down). Listed as Contract of Carriage.
American: Very bottom under Help. Listed as Conditions of Carriage.
Delta: Very bottom under Policies. Listed as Contract of Carriage.
Southwest: Very bottom under Flying Southwest. Listed as Contract of Carriage.
Frontier: Scroll to bottom and click Legal, then the link displayed as Contract of Carriage.
Alaska: Very bottom. Listed as Contract of Carriage
Force Majeure or ‘Acts of God’
Airlines aren’t liable for delays or cancellations in events beyond their control. They are only limited to refunding the unused portion of the ticket. Fun stuff when you are stuck 3,000 miles from home.
American’s Conditions of Carriage include these events:
  • Meteorological or weather conditions
  • Civil disturbances including war, embargoes or unsettled international conditions (real or threatened)
  • Acts of terror
  • Labor disputes that involve or affect our service
  • Government regulations or requirements
  • Shortage of labor, fuel or facilities of American or others
  • Any fact not reasonably foreseen or predicted by American
Southwest’s contract specifically lists Air Traffic Control as something it would mean by those “government regulations or requirements.”
Here’s Delta’s obligation in the event of Force Majeure:
“Delta’s Liability for Additional Amenities in the Event of Schedule Changes, Delays and Flight Cancellations: Except as provided above, Delta shall have no liability if the flight cancellation, diversion or delay was due to force majeure.”
Airlines say they will “exercise reasonable attempts” to get you from point A to point B but do not guarantee schedules, aircraft types or seat assignments. They don’t promise they wil not add stopovers.
“Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to transport you and your baggage from your origin to your destination with reasonable dispatch, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft types, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.”
“Schedules are Subject To Change Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time.”
“Flight Schedule Changes. Flight schedules are subject to change without notice, and the times shown on Carrier’s published schedules, Tickets, and advertising are not guaranteed. At times, without prior notice to Passengers, Carrier may need to substitute other aircraft and may change, add, or omit intermediate stops.”
Delays and impacts on alternative travel
Some airlines (Delta, United, Hawaiian, Alaska) may use other carriers to transport you under certain conditions. Others will not (Southwest, Frontier, Spirit).
There was a recent announcement that American is discontinuing options for travelers whose flights are delayed or canceled. Under its new policy, passengers without status in the airline’s frequent-flyer program will not be rebooked on other airlines except in special circumstances.
“If there is a flight cancellation, diversion, delay of greater than 90 minutes, or 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 and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 22. If the passenger does not request cancellation and refund Delta Domestic General Rules Tariff Page 17 of 25 of the remaining portion of the ticket, Delta will transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased. At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another Carrier or via ground transportation.”
“Service Interruptions: Refer to Section 8 for conditions applicable to international travel. a. Failure to Operate as Scheduled (1) Canceled Flights or Irregular Operations. In the event Carrier cancels or fails to operate any flight according to Carrier’s published schedule, or changes the schedule of any flight, Carrier will, at the request of a Passenger with a confirmed Ticket on such flight, take one of the following actions: (i) Transport the Passenger at no additional charge on Carrier’s next flight(s) on which space is available to the Passenger’s intended destination, in accordance with Carrier’s established reaccommodation practices; or (ii) Refund the unused portion of the Passenger’s fare in accordance with Section 4c.”
“Delay, Misconnection or Cancellation
“When a Passenger’s ticket is affected because of Irregular Operations caused by UA, UA will take the following measures:
“Transport the Passenger on its own flights, subject to availability, to the Destination, next Stopover point, or transfer point shown on its portion of the Ticket, without Stopover in the same class of service, at no additional cost to the Passenger; or
“At its sole discretion, UA may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier. United may also, at its sole discretion, and if acceptable to the passenger, arrange for the passenger to travel via ground transportation.”
“IRREGULAR OPERATIONS. The following rules apply to any Irregular Operation:
Liability. Except as provided by law, we are not liable for any Irregular Operations.
Delay, Misconnection or Cancellation. When your Ticket is affected by any delay, Misconnection or cancellation caused by Hawaiian, we will take one the following actions:
“We will transport you, subject to availability and without stopover, to your destination, next stopover point, or transfer point shown on our portion of your Ticket, in the same class of service, at no additional cost to you; in our sole discretion, we may arrange for you to travel on another carrier; or we will refund you in accordance with Rule 24: Refunds.”
“C. Delay, Misconnection, or Cancellation – In the event (i) a passenger’s flight is cancelled, (ii) a passenger is denied boarding because an aircraft with lesser capacity is substituted, (iii) a passenger misses a connecting Frontier flight due to a delay or cancellation of a Frontier flight (but not flights of other carriers), (iv) a passenger is delivered to a different destination because of the omission of a scheduled stop to which the passenger held a ticket, to the extent possible, Frontier will provide transportation on its own flights at no additional charge to the passenger’s original destination or equivalent destination as provided herein. Frontier will have no obligation to provide transportation on another carrier. If Frontier cannot provide the foregoing transportation, Frontier shall, if requested, provide a refund for the unused portion of the passenger’s ticket in lieu of the transportation under the foregoing. The foregoing shall be the limit of Frontier’s liability for the matters covered by this provision.”
Food/hotels for delayed or canceled flights
Most of those that offer hotels do so if the delay is 4 hours or more and extends into the 10 p.m. – 6 a.m. time frame. American offers a hotel if the flight doesn’t board by 11:59 p.m. on the scheduled arrival day.
  • Delta: hotel, no mention of meals.
  • United: hotel, snacks, meals provided for “extensive delay.”
  • Hawaiian: hotel.
  • Alaska: hotel. Delays of more than 2 hours may receive discount for future travel.
  • American: Hotel, mentions snacks (crackers and water).
  • Frontier: No mention of hotel.
  • Southwest: No mention of hotel.
  • JetBlue: No mention of hotel.
  • Spirit: Best to read and try to decipher: “Spirit will not assume expenses incurred as a result of a flight delay, cancellation, or schedule change. Spirit may provide limited amenities and services, which may be required by certain guests in order to maintain their safety, health and welfare. Amenities provided by Spirit are provided as a courtesy to the guest and are not to be considered an obligation of Spirit. In the case of a cancellation or misconnection, if rebooking options are available the following day, and the cancellation was due to our failure, we may offer overnight hotel accommodations for non-local guests.”