By Travel columnist
updated 2/3/2005 6:31:55 PM ET 2005-02-03T23:31:55

When his flight from Miami to London is canceled, British Airways only allows the first-class and business-class passengers off the plane. The crew insists U.S. customs are holding up the aircraft, but David Hansell suspects it’s something else. As a result of the delay he loses an entire day of his vacation. What does the airline owe him?

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Q: My wife and I were scheduled to fly from Miami to London on British Airways recently. But as the plane pushed back from the gate it collided with a van parked behind one of its engines. Needless to say, we didn’t fly out that night.

Shortly after announcing that the flight was canceled, the cabin crew allowed the first class and business class passengers to exit the plane. We were sitting in the premium economy section, so we watched them all get off. The crew told us that no one could deplane because “customs was holding the plane.”

Having worked for an airline in the past, and as a present employee of the Federal Aviation Administration, I am familiar with aviation law. The story we were being told seemed odd.

I tried numerous times to speak with the purser on the plane to get him to allow us to exit the plane. We were ignored.

After a while, the story changed. Now we were being told that British Airways was working to find everyone hotels, and that was why we were being held.

We live in Miami, so we didn’t need a hotel.

Finally, after complaining enough, my wife and I, along with two other couples, were allowed to leave. Upon deplaning, there was no customs, no airline personnel, no one. To us, it seemed as if there was no reason to keep us on the plane other than to let the business class and first class passengers rebook.

We were put on to a Virgin Atlantic flight the following evening, missing one day of out vacation in the UK and a planned trip to France the following evening. Additionally, Virgin had no premium economy seats available, so we got stuck in regular economy class. I wrote to British Airways’ customer relations department to complain, but I’m being stonewalled. Can you help?

— David HansellMiami

A: You’re right, the customs excuse was bogus. I looked up the law, which is outlined in Title 19, Part 122 of the Code of Federal Regulation. There is no rule that says passengers with the good seats have to be escorted from the plane first in the even of a mechanical delay.

Did the British Airways crew lie to you? I don’t know. Maybe they mistakenly believed there was some sort of rule that required keeping most passengers on the plane.

Your rights as a passenger are outlined in the airline’s General Conditions of Carriage, which is available on British Airways’ Web site. In the event of a mechanical delay, which this clearly was, the airline promises to rebook you on the next British Airways flight, reroute you on a different airline, or offer you a full refund.

The contract specifically addresses a situation such as yours. “If you are re-routed, we will not charge you extra,” it says. “If the fare, taxes, fees and charges for the re-routed journey are lower than the amount you have already paid, we will refund you the difference.”

Translation: British Airways owes you money.

How could you have avoided losing a day of vacation? Well, the moment passengers began leaving, I would have called British Airways on my cell phone and insisted on being rebooked on the next flight. Chances are, there were seats on the Virgin Atlantic flight leaving Miami that evening for London — and you’re right, the business-class and first-class passengers probably got them.

In a situation like this, a cell phone is a great equalizer.

It also helps to be familiar with British Airways’ General Conditions of Carriage. I know it’s kind of geeky, but consider printing out a copy and carrying it with you. You never know when you’ll need it.

British Airways, to its credit, stopped stonewalling you and offered each of you a $400 travel credit and a check for $75 to cover the taxi ride to and from the airport.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him anoteor visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.

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