Flight delays: What are your rights?

Flight delays: What are your rights?

Your flight is delayed or canceled. Now what? Is your airline required to compensate you for your ticket? Should it pay for your hotel room? Meals? What about your transportation between the airport and hotel?

Here are answers to all these questions plus contact info for major airlines. You’ll want to bookmark this page as travel season heats up.

What does my airline legally owe me?

Unfortunately for travelers in the United States, aviation consumer protection laws do not require that airlines compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights. The only time an airline is required to provide compensation is if the passenger is bumped from a flight.

Compare that to the European Union, which requires compensation if you are informed of a cancellation fewer than 14 days before departure or if you arrive at your destination more than three hours late. There are some exceptions for extraordinary circumstances. The website AirHelp has a tool where you can check if your flight is eligible for reimbursement.
Read your contract of carriage

Even though no federal regulations require compensation, many airlines offer some as a matter of customer service.

Each carrier has its own contract of carriage that spells out what it will do. Read all this fine print so you’ll know what may be offered if you have to talk to an agent.

Keep in mind that contracts of carriage only apply to circumstances within the airline’s control. What exactly does that mean?

Delays and cancellations caused by weather, medical emergencies or air traffic control are not within the airline’s control.
Delays caused by changes in aircraft, personnel issues or mechanical issues are within the airline’s control.
Airlines are not required to book you onto a partner or competing airline. However, some airlines do allow customer service agents to do this in some cases.

Pro tip: Most compensation is at the discretion of the airline, and you’ll win more flies with honey than vinegar. Be kind to the person handling your problem.

Contracts of carriage explained

Here in plain English are highlights of seven airlines’ contracts of carriage. Consult your ticket documentation for complete information.

Alaska Airlines

If your flight is delayed more than two hours, the customer service agent should ask where Alaska can contact you by email or letter with an apology and a discount on a future Alaska Airlines flight.

The airline may provide a hotel room if your flight is canceled and you are more than 100 miles from home. The contract of carriage states that “accommodations include single or families rooms and round-trip ground transportation to an airport area hotel if ground transportation is not furnished by the hotel.”

Lodging is only provided if the delay is expected to exceed four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Allegiant Airlines
The contract of carriage says Allegiant’s schedules are subject to change without notice and the times shown on schedules and advertising are not guaranteed.

If the schedule changes, Allegiant will try to notify you as soon as possible but does not guarantee that you’ll make your connections. If a schedule change is within Allegiant’s control, the airline may refund the unused portion of your fare.

If your flight is canceled, an agent will book you on another Allegiant flight, refund the unused portion of your fare or give you a voucher for future travel. Allegiant’s contract of carriage does not address whether hotel rooms are covered if a flight is canceled.

American Airlines
If the delay is American’s fault and your flight does not board before 11:59 p.m., American will arrange an overnight stay or compensate you for the cost of an approved hotel — if one is available.

The contract of carriage also says that if your flight is delayed on the ground and doesn’t have access to a gate for more than two hours, the airline will provide for essential needs such as snacks, water, restroom and basic medical assistance.

American sometimes offers “distressed passenger” vouchers to customers affected by things beyond the airline’s control. These are coupons for discounts at hotels near the airport.

If your departure is delayed more than four hours and Delta is at fault, its contract of carriage states it may provide a room at one of its contracted hotels. The delay must occur between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Delta will provide transportation to the hotel if the hotel doesn’t have a shuttle.

If lodging is not available, Delta may give you a travel voucher for the contracted hotel rate up to $100, good on a future flight.

Southwest’s contract of carriage notes that if circumstances within its control cause you to miss the last flight out, a customer service agent will find you a room as near to the airport as possible and at no cost to you. They may also arrange ground transportation

If the circumstances are not within their control, they’ll try to help you find a discounted rate at a hotel near the airport.

Southwest does not rebook onto other airlines nor does it cover the difference between Southwest fares and a higher fare on another airline. You can get a refund of the unused portion of your Southwest ticket.

But even though the airline states in writing that it won’t book you on a competitor, the customer service agent may have some flexibility. Spokesman Dan Landson said in an email: “While the contract of carriage spells out our limitations as to what we can provide, we do work with each impacted customer on a solution as each of their situations is different.”

Spirit Airlines
Spirit’s contract of carriage says that if a cancellation or missed connection is the airline’s fault it may offer overnight lodging for “non-local guests.” It notes that hotels rooms, meal vouchers and ground transportation are a “courtesy” and not an “obligation.”

Spirit has no agreement with other airlines to rebook customers, and it is not outlined in its contract of carriage. Spirit spokesman Derek Dombrowski said the airline occasionally books passengers on other airlines if the cancellation was the airline’s fault and no other Spirit flight is available.

“Like other accommodations, the decision to put our guests on another airline is handled on a case-by-case basis,” Dombrowski said.

United Airlines
United’s contract of carriage says delayed passengers may receive one night’s lodging or reimbursement for one night’s lodging in the form of a voucher for future travel. This is for delays that exceed four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Check your credit card

Many credit cards offer travel insurance. Some even offer services to help you navigate delays and cancellations. Make sure to read all of the benefits of your card before your trip.

Pro tip: If you did not book your ticket using the card that offers travel insurance or assistance, the company cannot help. Consider finding a good travel credit card and always book your travel with that card.


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