Much has been written in the past few months about how a regulation called "Rule 240" used to require an airline to rebook you on another carrier when it canceled your flight — and whether or not the rule still exists.
Some pundits, such as Joe Brancatelli writing on Portfolio.com, claim it’s an “urban travel legend” and doesn’t exist any more. Others, such as Today Show travel guru Peter Greenberg, insist that Rule 240 is still very much for real. Airfarefarewatchdog.com is putting its money on Greenberg, for a good reason.
What is, or was, Rule 240? Back in the days when airlines were regulated by a government agency, they all had to abide by some sensible rules to protect passengers in case of a cancellation or misconnection that was within the airline’s control — among other things. These rules were incorporated in the airlines’ contracts of carriage.
After the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry in 1978, these rules no longer had to be followed. However, some airlines kept the same rules — perhaps because they were too lazy to completely rewrite their contracts. Airlines formed after deregulation typically didn’t incorporate these rules into their contracts, and some have done away with them.
Rule 240 originally stated that in the event of a cancellation or flight misconnection, the airline must put you on its next flight out. If that wasn’t “acceptable” to you, then your airline would have to book you on the next flight by a competing carrier, if that flight would get you to your destination sooner — all at no additional cost to you.
If first-class seats were the only available seats on the other carrier, then your airline had to upgrade you. However, the rule only applied in circumstances under the airline's control, such as crew failing to show up, or mechanical problems.
So does Rule 240, or something like it, still exist? Airfarewatchdog.com searched the contracts of carriage for a bunch of big and smaller airlines to find out.
The result: Several airlines, such as Northwest, still have something they call Rule 240. Others, such as Delta, Southwest, and Virgin America, have more vague language saying that they will put you on another airline at their “sole discretion,” or that they “may substitute alternate carriers.”
Some carriers don’t call it Rule 240 at all, instead using a numbering system of their own invention. And still others, such as American, have nothing to say about the topic in their contracts of carriage.
Contracts of carriage can, and do, change
Keep in mind that airlines can change their contracts at any time, and several of the larger ones have done so in recent months. And sometimes there isn’t a flight on another airline that will get you there sooner, especially if you’re traveling from or through a so-called “fortress hub” such as Minneapolis/St Paul International Airport (a Northwest Airlines stronghold).
Remember, too, that there may be no seats available on the other airline’s next flight. Additionally, if you're traveling on a "bulk," "consolidator," or other unpublished airfare, then all bets are off. Also keep in mind that your airline may not have a "next flight out" agreement with all airlines.
On the other hand, even if an airline doesn't have a formal rule, it still may take pity on you and "protect" you on a competitor.
To address the skeptics, Airfarewatchdog.com has created an airline-by-airline Rule 240 chart to interpret the airlines’ policies. It has excerpted the actual language from the airlines' current (as of July 2008) contracts of carriage.
The chart also notes whether, near as can tell, the airline will put you in first class on its own (or another carrier's) next flight out. Below the chart are links to the contracts on the airlines’ Web sites so you can see for yourself.