By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/4/2008 10:37:12 AM ET 2008-02-04T15:37:12

Rule 240 is the most misunderstood rule in the airline business.

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That’s what airline guru Terry Trippler told me a decade ago. And it’s never been truer than it is today.

Rule 240 is the paragraph in an airline’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline — that describes its responsibility when a flight is delayed or canceled.

But it’s so much more than that for your favorite travel experts. I’m talking about the public feud between two travel heavyweights — TODAY's Peter Greenberg and Conde Nast Portfolio’s Joe Brancatelli — who have been arguing like Talmudic scholars over the clause.

Brancatelli says there’s no Rule 240 and calls it a “myth.” Not so, Greenberg counters, insisting Rule 240 does exist .

So my editor, who knows I spend far too much time reading airline contracts, asked me for an opinion. As did readers like Aaron Belenky, a Seattle software consultant who clicked on my blog a few hours after reading Greenberg’s report and urged me to stop him from spreading “the myth of Rule 240.”

Sure thing.

It’s important to keep in mind that ever since I can remember, even a passing mention of Rule 240 in a story was enough to draw readers, listeners and viewers by the thousands. Just like putting the words “Britney” or “nude” in a headline propels your story to the top of the “most read” list, having “Rule 240” in the title ensures a million clicks. Both Greenberg and Brancatelli, who as far as I can tell are friends with each other, are surely aware of the Pavlovian response a Rule 240 story brings. I am. Why else would I agree to write this column?

But who’s right?

Well, they’re both right. And they’re both wrong.

Clearly, there is a Rule 240. But it’s hardly an all-powerful provision that can be invoked by every stranded passenger. Somewhere between myth and a magic bullet lies the truth about Rule 240.

Here are four lesser-known facts about Rule 240 that have been overlooked during this entertaining episode of travel maven Smackdown. Knowing them will help you get a more accurate picture of this important airline rule, and what it means to your next trip.

Every airline has a rule ‘240’ — but not every airline calls it Rule 240
For example, if you check on Delta Air Lines’ domestic contract of carriage, you’ll find something called Rule 240 that promises the airline “will exercise reasonable efforts to carry you and your baggage according to Delta’s published schedules and the schedule reflected on your ticket.” But if you’re flying internationally, Delta has no Rule 240. Instead, the 240 provisions are contained in rules 80, 87 and 95 of its international contract. American Airlines calls its “240” Rule 18, Continental Airlines refers to it as Rule 24 (very clever, dropping the zero) while US Airways refers to its 240 as section X. Before your flight, I recommend printing your airline contract — you can find links to every major airline’s contract on my site — and referring to it if something goes wrong. Don’t invoke Rule 240, even if your airline has one. It will make you sound like a whiny, high-maintenance passenger. Instead, politely refer to your contract of carriage or conditions of carriage if you need to argue for compensation, and be extra polite. Civility often counts for more than being right.

Rule 240 is just one part of a contract that you really ought to read
Airlines must be delighted by all of this bickering over Rule 240, because the last thing they want you to do is pay attention to the rest of their contract. Why? Because there are a lot of other rights you probably never knew about — everything from when you’re entitled to a refund to what the carrier owes you when you’re bumped from a flight. Airlines, it seems, would rather you not know about what’s in their contract. Some smaller carriers don’t even publish their contracts online, meaning you have to ask for a copy of the document at the ticket counter. (Under federal law, the airline must show it to you.) Even the major airlines make it difficult to access their contracts by either forcing you to download the document in .PDF format or publishing it in ALL UPPERCASE, which is the equivalent of yelling online. Bottom line: going off on a Rule 240 tangent only helps the airlines, not you.

Rule 240 is subject to change without notice
Airlines revise their contracts constantly. When they do, they don’t exactly broadcast it to the world. For example, I recently compared US Airways’ current contract with its pre-merger contract and found that the airline had quietly made significant changes to the document that few people had noticed. Updates included revising its rules on medical oxygen, changing its refund policies and imposing new restrictions on unaccompanied minors. Since there’s no Civil Aeronautics Board to tell the airlines what they can and can’t put in their contracts, you could see the Rule 240s either tightened in the passenger’s favor, or more likely, weakened to the airlines’ advantage. Of course there are times when an airline should revise its contract, but doesn’t. Delta’s paperwork is a little dusty. Here’s one clause that made me chuckle: “ii) Passengers will not be involuntarily rerouted on Concorde aircraft without additional collection.”

A better name for Rule 240 is “Customers Last”
One of the points of confusion about Rule 240 is that it is part of a pledge by airlines to improve their customer service called “Customers First.” It isn’t. “Customers First” is a set of policies reluctantly adopted by the airlines several years ago in a successful effort to avert government re-regulation. The pledges included notifying passengers of delays and cancellations, accommodating travelers with disabilities and special needs and improving overbooking and denied boarding policies. A promise, by the way, that the Transportation Department’s Inspector General said they’ve failed to keep. For example, only 5 of the 16 airlines it recently reviewed made on-time performance data available on their Web sites. The government also found that 12 of the 15 airlines were not complying with federal regulations when it came to helping passengers with disabilities. A look at the various flavors of Rule 240 suggests the provision is more like the Yin to “Customer First’s” Yang. “Customer First” is what the airlines promise (but don’t do) while Rule 240 is what the airlines must do (but often don’t). It is really the “Customers Last” clause.

So go on, enjoy the fireworks between two of the travel industry’s biggest talking heads. Salivate like one of Pavolv’s dogs if you must. But while you’re here, why not take the time to understand Rule 240? Read your airline’s rule, then review the entire contract and take it with you on your next flight.

The length of your next airline delay could depend on it.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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