It’s getting late. Your flight is indefinitely delayed or outright canceled. A quick scan of your phone or the airport monitors shows another airline still has a flight out tonight. Confidently, you approach the airline agent … Sound familiar?
Let’s take a step back and examine the responsibility of airlines when it comes to delays and cancellations. What legal requirements currently exist in getting passengers to their destination on the day of their airline ticket?
Point A to Point A. Or Possibly B.
Turns out, airlines are on the hook for very little. Spoiler alert: mumbo-jumbo ahead.
When you purchase an airline ticket, you enter into a contract of carriage with the individual carrier. A contract of carriage is loosely defined as what the airline is responsible for when you travel. Individual mileage may vary, as each carrier has its own unique contract.
We took a look at one major carrier’s contract of carriage
, in this case United’s, and scrolled all the way down to their responsibilities governing delays and cancellations in Rule 24, Section E, Subsection 2.a.ii and iii (see where this is going?).
To paraphrase, in the event of delays or cancellations caused by the airline (as opposed to force majeure events, or events beyond their control including the weather), the airline will rebook passengers on another United flight, or (maybe) book you on another carrier.
Force majeure events come with a separate instruction manual, perhaps best reserved for a future newsletter.
Of course, you could always request a refund and not fly. Feel free to let us know how your cross-country walk home went.
Point A to Point B and the DOT
So, you’re telling me that the carriers aren’t federally regulated in this area? Yes, that’s exactly what we’re telling you – unless you happen to be traveling in Europe where carriers are more regulated. Should your U.S. flight be significantly delayed or canceled, there aren’t any rules governing what the airlines must do.
According to this
page on the DOT website (juicy details in bold), if your flight experiences a significant delay, “You might be better off trying to arrange another flight, as long as you don’t have to pay a cancellation penalty or higher fare for changing your reservations. If you find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline if it will endorse your ticket to the new carrier; this could save you a fare collection.Remember, however, that there is no rule requiring them to do this.”
In the event of a cancellation, the DOT goes on to say: “Most airlines will rebook you on their first flight to your destination on which space is available, at no additional charge.”
What if the next flight on the airline is hours or days away? Well then, the DOT instructs passengers to “find out if another carrier has space and ask the first airline if they will endorse your ticket to the other carrier.”
The Navorski Syndrome
Rather than create a whole new class of travelers stranded at airports like Tom Hanks’ character Viktor Navorski in the movie The Terminal, airlines do actually attempt to get you to your destination – eventually. It’s bad business otherwise and, of course, terrible press coverage.
Problem is, it’s thoroughly at the discretion of individual airlines to dictate how much pain to inflict on flyers. Decisions on passenger re-accommodation by carriers have long since been based on agents’ discretion and, with luck, their common sense.
So we were dismayed to learn that American Airlines recently decided to eliminate good old-fashioned common sense. Expect to be presented with (surprise!) fewer choices next time you travel.
American will no longer rebook passengers on other carriers – except for elite travelers.
In other words, those in first or business class or the highest tiers of its frequent flyer program may be offered a seat on another airline. Even for some of those flyers, there are stipulations limiting American’s “generosity.”
Should you be so unfortunate as to be labeled “non-elite,” good luck with traveling on another carrier, even if doing so would avoid an overnight stay.
Yes, American went on to clarify there will be prudent exceptions in some cases, for instance for unaccompanied minors, passengers attending funerals or weddings, or those traveling on cruise ships or stranded overnight without a hotel.
American’s latest policy sends a poor message to customers. It’s one thing to board first, enjoy free drinks or have a more comfortable seat. It’s another to force travelers to wait countless hours or even overnight to get to their destination when another option exists.
Its latest policy shows American is indifferent about passenger inconvenience, no matter what pain is caused.
Hopefully, the rest of the market doesn’t follow suit anytime soon.