Stand Up, Before You Sit Down

Your Rights A to Z

Nov. 11, 2014

Air travel is more stressful than ever. There are more cancellations, tarmac delays, and passenger horror stories than ever.

Photo: Juliette Borda
An airline passenger’s worst nightmare is hearing the announcement, “Your flight has been canceled”, or “Your luggage will not arrive until tomorrow”.
Never before has the need been greater for an airline passenger rights association.
Because here’s what passengers are up against, lobbyists from the air transport industry have spent $58,395,689 so far this year and an average of $82,427,395 each of the last five years to keep the profitable status quo and defeat pro-consumer and anti-trust legislation.  
There are over 130 aviation industry companies and political action committees that contribute to the reelection campaigns of members of Congress.
The top dollar recipient for 2013-2014 was Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 
As one of the most powerful members of Congress on aviation matters, he received $254,200 in airline PAC contributions, mostly from industries in which his committee rules over.
Consumers, however, spent practically nothing on lobbying Congress, yet on the typical round-trip $300 domestic ticket, they pay about $60 in taxes.
So, airline passengers are significantly underrepresented in Congress, yet they’ve paid significantly into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund this year that finances the FAA.
So what can passengers do? 

 You can start by contacting your representative, (and send us a copy), saying “I want FlyersRights to advocate for the rights and interests of air travelers, to be funded with 1/1000 of the ticket taxes and facility charges paid by airline passengers.”
You can add, “I want Congress to introduce the FlyersRights Passenger Rights Bill to stop the degrading of service on U.S. domestic flights. Air travel today takes longer and has more delays. In coach, seats are squeezed as never before, risking health and safety. Airline service to smaller and midsize cities has been cut, causing passengers to pay much higher fares to these airports.”
FlyersRights has been successful previously by getting The Department of Transportation rules beefed up with the landmark Tarmac Delay rule in 2009, which limited delays on the ground to three hours.
Then, we had another victory with the passage of our enhanced passenger protections in 2011:
  • Lost Bag Refund: A refund for all lost, checked baggage. Many airlines now charge $25 per checked bag. Currently, passengers can claim items lost, but they still end up paying for the fee. The refund applies only to luggage lost, not delayed. If this happens, file an online complaint with the DOT. According to USA Today, airlines collect more than $3 billion in bag fees each year.
  • No Hidden Fees: It’s mandatory for airlines to disclose all hidden fees at any point during a traveler’s purchasing process, whether online or at the ticket counter. These include fees for taxes, cancelations, changes, meals, baggage and even upgrades. 
  • Bumping Compensation: Passengers are eligible for compensation from $650 to $1,300 if they are involuntarily bumped from their flight. For “short delays,” passengers are entitled to up to twice the purchase amount of their ticket, or $650. For longer delays, they can receive up to four times their ticket price, or $1,300.
  • Grace Period: Passengers have a 24-hour grace period to make changes to their itinerary without accruing cancelation fees.
  • Notification of Flight Changes: Airlines are required to inform passengers of delays and bumps either at the gate, via cell phone, or online for domestic flights. This gives passengers the option not to board a delayed flight and arrange other means of arriving at their destination.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no U.S. law requiring the airlines to provide meal vouchers or hotels. However, some airlines will provide these accommodations because they agreed to do so in their Contracts of Carriage. 
So, when buying your ticket, don’t just compare price. Go a step further and compare the protections under the carriers’ Contracts of Carriage. Sometimes paying a few extra dollars for a ticket will get you a room and a meal in case of delay.
Under EU law however, passengers are entitled to reimbursement for meals and refreshments and two free telephone calls, e-mails, or faxes where there is a sufficient delay (i.e., delays of two hours in “short haul” trips up to 1,500 km, three hours in “medium haul” trips up to 3,500 km, and four hours in “long haul” trips greater than 3,500 km; Regulation No. 261/2004, Article 6). 
Where the delay is five hours or more, passengers traveling in Europe are entitled to reimbursement of the full cost of the flight ticket together with a return flight to the first point of departure at the earliest opportunity. When a flight is canceled, the passenger is entitled to cash payment based on the length of the flight (short haul, €250; medium haul, €400; long haul, €600; Regulation No. 261/2004, Article 5). 

Overbooking and Denied Boarding

Yes, it is perfectly legal for airlines to sell more tickets than seats on a flight as long as they give passengers sufficient notice. Thus the signs at counters and on the back of paper tickets.
Bumping is bad news to a traveler. If you are involuntarily denied boarding, you are entitled to immediate payment of the following compensation (14 CFR 250.5):
Domestic Flights:
  • 0 to 1 hour arrival delay: No compensation
  • 1 to 2 hour arrival delay: 200% of your one-way fare (up to a maximum of $650)
  • Over 2 hours arrival delay: 400% of your one-way fare (up to a maximum of $1,300)
International Flights:
  • 0 to 1 hour arrival delay: No compensation
  • 1 to 4 hour arrival delay: 200% of your one-way fare (up to a maximum of $650)
  • Over 4 hours arrival delay: 400% of your one-way fare (up to a maximum of $1,300)
Passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding are entitled to payment in cash/check, but many carriers may try to get away with offering payment in tickets/vouchers. 
When a flight is oversold, carriers often request volunteers. Volunteers may be offered any amount of compensation by the carrier.  

Enforcing Your Rights

The bad news: Passengers cannot sue the airlines themselves and must rely on the DOT to enforce the rules. There is no private right of action for violation of the DOT’s consumer protection regulations. 
Practically all state consumer protection statutes and tort claims are rendered useless against air carriers. This leaves consumers with just one remaining cause of action: breach of the Contract of Carriage. 
On average, legitimately harmed passengers are able to get their money back in small claims court for breach of contract. 

When Problems Arise

When problems arise at the airport, your best initial response is to go online to the carrier’s Contract of Carriage – all airlines are required to publicize this online – to see what your rights are under the contract. Are you entitled to overnight hotel and meals? Will the carrier send you to another carrier that can get you there sooner? 

Read More: American Bar Assn.

Shut Up And ‘Relax’, Tweets AA

Election law professor Rick Hasen on Saturday tweeted a fairly sober assessment of a new 737 American Airlines jet as he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles.

Back on another @AmericanAir new plane. My review: beautiful seats, screen, plugs/usb: bad seat pitch and less room for writing on a laptop
– Rick Hasen (@rickhasen) November 8, 2014

The company then responded with the equivalent of “sit down and shut up.”

@rickhasen We’re happy to have you on board, Rick. Maybe that’s a sign that you just have to #sitandrelax. – American Airlines (@AmericanAir) November 8, 2014

So, a customer complains there’s not enough room to work on a new airplane, and the airliner responds that he should just relax.

When Hasen said this, American tried to sell him on buying a more expensive seat.

@rickhasen Have you tried our Main Cabin Extra seating? Up to 6 inches more legroom per seat.
– American Airlines (@AmericanAir) November 8, 2014

Hasen soon responded with a popular take on airline industry economics.

@AmericanAir I understand. There is great pressure to monetize everything on airplanes. And cartelization gives frequent flyers less choice – Rick Hasen (@rickhasen) November 8, 2014

And to this, amazingly, American responded, “You’re welcome, Rick!”

In Hasen’s case, American Airlines ultimately ‘apologized’ for the service he received.

@rickhasen We’re very sorry if we misunderstood your tweet, Rick. We hope you’re more comfortable on your next flight with us.
– American Airlines (@AmericanAir) November 8, 2014

See, the problem is we sardined passengers are just “misunderstanding” the airlines.

Video of the Week!
 Air New Zealand’s Safety Video – wow!

The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made #airnzhobbit

Getting on a Plane? 
Put This Number in Your Phone:
                            Kate Hanni, founder 
                         with Paul Hudson, President

Sign the FlyersRights Petition for a Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0!

Send comments to the editor, KendallCreighton or @KendallFlyers