Brace yourself and take a trip down memory lane to summertimes gone by, when afternoon thunderstorms frequently caused passengers on hundreds of flights to be stranded on planes that had pulled away from the gate but then remained on tarmacs, without taking off or returning to the terminal, for three, five, even 12 hours and more.
Oh, the hellish stories we heard
; frantic passengers getting sick; babies shrieking; overflowing toilets; fetid air; overwrought flight crews.
Approximately 1,500 domestic flights each year between 2006 and 2009 were stranded on tarmacs for upwards of three hours, the Transportation Department said.
FlyersRights put an end to this when founder Kate Hanni endured almost 9 miserable hours aboard a grounded plane at a Texas airport back in late 2006, yards from apparently empty gates.
We took our fight for passenger rights to Capitol Hill and pressed the government to toughen protections for passengers. Working though grass-roots organizing, we achieved success
two years later (and despite sustained derision from the airline industry) for “passengers’ rights” provisions in federal law, and a federal rule that set severe fines of up to $27,000 per passenger for airlines that keep passengers stuck for over three hours on planes that leave the gate but remain on the tarmac.
Today, with more than 50,000 members, FlyersRights.org is the largest non-profit consumer organization in the US representing airline passengers. We have given thousands of interviews to the media, and hardly a week goes by that FlyersRights.org isn’t quoted by a major media outlet.
In anticipation of another formidable summer travel season, here are the big issues FlyersRights gets asked about the most:
Flight Delays Or Cancellations:
The No. 1 passenger complaint, with 20 percent to 33 percent of flights late and 1 percent to 5 percent canceled. As airliners are now mostly full, mass cancellations often result in several days’ delay.
Airlines know this, but instead of providing reasonable compensation or maintaining adequate reserves of equipment and personnel, have sought to absolve themselves of liability. This includes redefining ‘Act of God’ in their contracts to include equipment and crew shortages, then refusing to provide alternate transportation or even ticket refunds for canceled flights.
Laws mandate compensation for flight delays up to $6,000 for international flights under the Montreal Convention, and up to 600 Euros under EU rules, but nothing under DOT rules, except for bumping.
Disclosure of Taxes and Fees in Published Fares:
As of 2012, the DOT requires airlines to include all mandatory taxes and fees in published airfares, instead of simply putting asterisks with all the taxes and fees in tiny print. Airlines must also disclose baggage fees, though this can come in the form of a link to another Web page with the baggage fee information.
Need to Change or Cancel the Ticket:
If you realize within 24 hours of buying your ticket that you need to change or cancel it, you can do this without penalty (assuming you’re booking at least 1 week before departure). You can also hold a reservation for 24 hours before paying for it.
DOT now requires airlines to give you prompt notification of delays, cancellations and route changes.
Similar to the routing changes, if the airline changes your scheduled flight to a different time or day, you aren’t legally entitled to any compensation, only a refund of the ticket price you paid.
To account for inflation, the U.S. Department of Transportation last Wednesday increased penalties
for denied-boarding compensation and mishandled-domestic-baggage liability. For cases in which airlines bump passengers from oversold flights, DOT raised the maximum compensation to $675 for passengers delayed at least an hour and $1,350 for passengers delayed two hours or more. The previous maxes, set in 2011
, were $650 and $1,300.
If you’re bumped and the airline rebooks you on a flight that arrives less than one hour after your scheduled arrival time, you aren’t legally entitled to any compensation, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for a goodwill gesture, such as frequent flyer miles.
Bumping, International Flights Departing From The U.S.:
You’ll receive 200% of the one-way fare, up to $650 if you arrive one to four hours after your scheduled arrival time; if you arrive more than four hours later than your scheduled arrival time you’re entitled to 400% of the one-way fare, up to $1300. More on EU passenger rights here
DOT recently raised the minimum baggage liability for domestic air service to $3,500 from $3,400.
Delayed (but not lost) Bags:
- Make sure to notify a baggage representative promptly, at the airport, within 4 hours of arriving at your destination
- Check with the representative for the airline’s reimbursement guidelines. Typically only basic toiletries and essential items will be covered
- Keep all receipts for your purchases, so that you can submit them for reimbursement
Ask For Cash Instead of a Voucher:
The airline must give each passenger who qualifies for involuntary denied boarding compensation a payment by cash or check for the amount specified above, on the day and at the place the involuntary denied boarding occurs.
If the airline arranges alternate transportation for the passenger’s convenience that departs before the payment can be made, the payment shall be sent to the passenger within 24 hours.
The air carrier may offer free or discounted transportation in place of the cash payment. In that event, the carrier must disclose all material restrictions on the use of the free or discounted transportation before the passenger decides whether to accept the transportation in lieu of a cash or check payment. The passenger may insist on the cash/check payment or refuse all compensation and bring private legal action.
Acceptance of the compensation may relieve the airline from any further liability to the passenger caused by its failure to honor the confirmed reservation. However, the passenger may decline the payment and seek to recover damages in a court of law or in some other manner.
Seat Selection Downgraded:
If you are forced out of your first class seat into a coach seat, you should be able to get the fare difference (or miles, if an award) refunded from the airline, given the different class of service.
If you pre-selected an aisle in the bulkhead are you owed compensation if the airline changes it to a middle seat in the back of the aircraft? No. Seat assignments aren’t part of the contract of carriage, so there’s no remedy or compensation owed if the airline puts you in a different seat.
DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless:
- the pilot determines that there is a safety or security reason why the aircraft cannot taxi to the gate and deplane its passengers, or
- Air traffic control advises the pilot that taxiing to the gate (or to another location where passengers can be deplaned) would significantly disrupt airport operations.
On both domestic and international flights, U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins. While the aircraft remains on the tarmac lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.
What More You Can Do If Your Rights Are Violated By An Airline:
- Write to the airline, cc to DOT and FlyersRights. Airline must acknowledge within 30 days and respond substantively within 60 days.
- File a small claims court action (but airline has the right to remove to US District Court).
- Airline can be investigated and fined by DOT but no compensation to passenger provided without airline consent or a court order.
Your Rights Re. TSA Or In-Flight Security:
- You have few rights other than to complain after the fact or decline to fly. Pat down searches with same-sex TSA agent in private area, instead of xrays are an option.
- Contraband items discovered can lead to reports and even arrests. It’s possible to be placed on the selectee list based a security incident, that may put you on the infamous No Fly list.
- Beware of complaining loudly on aircraft, as flight attendants can label you as a disruptive or a security threat, leading to arrest, questioning by police or ejection from flight. Recording an incident may be allowed on some airlines but others ban use of video recording, as does TSA.
FlyersRights filed an 18-page petition in February asking D.O.T to regulate international change fees and put a limit on the exorbitant fees consumers must pay to airlines when changing a reservation.
Change fees for international flights, which at times have been as low as $50, now go as high as $750 and is not commensurate with the airlines’ actual cost of making the change.
In sum, US passenger rights are not as broad and far-reaching as those in Europe.
FlyersRights is pushing for a passengers’ bill of rights
that would expand and clearly define consumer protections. Among the goals: require airlines to compensate passengers for delays and cancellations, as is done in the EU.