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Know your rights when you fly

Most airline contracts of carriage (the agreement you enter into with the airline when you fly) contain oblique language and frustrating loopholes.
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Last summer, at Las Vegas’s McCarran airport, I stood behind a frustrated Delta passenger whose delayed flight had caused him to miss a connection. He was indignantly invoking Rule 240, insisting that Delta had to put him on a flight with another carrier, which elicited a chuckle from the agent.

Rule 240, a 30-year-old relic of the days when airlines were regulated, at one time bound carriers to put you on the next available flight. These days, the airlines make their own rules; some have retained the name “Rule 240.” Unfortunately, Delta’s policy allows for its “sole discretion.”

I often receive e-mails from other travelers incredulous at how little recourse they have in such a situation. And it’s true: Most airline contracts of carriage (the agreement you enter into with the airline when you fly) contain oblique language and frustrating loopholes. Canada introduced Flight Rights Canada in September, and Europe has had a formalized set of passenger rights since 2005.

The good news is, you’re covered if you’re flying out of either place (even on U.S. carriers) or into Canada, though not into Europe. At Canadian airports, for example, airlines must announce schedule changes, give meal vouchers for delays of more than four hours, and hotel accommodations for those of more than eight hours. Passengers now must be given the option to disembark if they’ve been stuck on the tarmac for more than 90 minutes.

The European Commission’s rules specify that delays or cancellations that prevent you from completing your trip entitle you to a refund of the unused portions within seven days, even on nonrefundable tickets. Hotel accommodations and meals must be provided for delays of 24 hours or more.

In the absence of a U.S. nationwide Passenger Bill of Rights (the Department of Transportation approved a set of voluntary guidelines in November), some states have taken it on individually, with little luck. In 2007, New York passed such a bill after delays on the tarmac at JFK Airport stranded JetBlue travelers for more than 10 hours. But the bill was knocked down by a federal appellate court.

Until there are similar measures in place in the States — and there is no sign of that happening soon — here’s what you can do now:

Check the airline’s contract of carriage
Every airline posts a contract of carriage on its website. Each is different; Northwest, for example, states that it will put you on another airline’s flight if you experience a missed connection and a Northwest flight is unavailable, while Delta, as mentioned, has the final say. Familiarizing yourself with—or even printing out—your airline’s current rules before you fly may save you angst later. And flying with companies that voluntarily abide by some rules is a good idea. JetBlue has since developed its own customer bill of rights, promising that you will never be stuck on a plane for longer than five hours and that you’ll be compensated with vouchers for future travel if you experience delays of more than one hour.

Know what the rules are abroad
In case you are traveling from Canada or Europe on a U.S. carrier, the distinct possibility exists that the airline’s staff won’t be aware that you have more rights there than you do here. You’ll find the European Commission’s rules at its Air Transport Portal, and Flight Rights Canada on the Transport Canada website.

Do some lobbying of your own
You don’t have to take your lack of rights sitting down (unless, of course, you’re stuck on a tarmac right now). Contact your congressperson, learn more about bills in legislation, or join the efforts of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.