Flight Delays: Your Legal Rights

Most frequent travelers have been unlucky enough to experience flight delays, whether from bad weather, malfunctioning equipment, or any number of unforeseen circumstances.

Unfortunately for travelers on domestic flights, U.S. airlines have no legal obligation to provide delayed passengers with any form of compensation, including vouchers for hotels and food.

However, airlines do have lines in their Contract of Carriage that cover what they will do for passengers if a flight is delayed or cancelled. One of the most-discussed provisions is “Rule 240″ (although different airlines have different names for it), which provides that an airline experiencing a cancellation or delay for any reason other than weather will fly passengers on the next available flight, even if it’s with a competitor, even on the cheapest airline tickets.

Since every airline has different policies that are subject to change, the No. 1 way you can help yourself is to read your contract carefully and highlight areas that pertain to your rights in the event of delays and cancellations. Keep a copy of the highlighted contract on hand in the event you need to remind gate agents of your rights. (Check out our tips for bad weather flight delays or cancelled flights.)

Keep in mind that if your flight is delayed for whatever reason, approaching the ticket agents with courtesy and patience could win you some brownie points and maybe even hotel and meal vouchers.

Common reasons for delays

These generally fall into two categories. The first is circumstances within the airline’s control, such as malfunctioning equipment. If the aircraft you’re supposed to travel needs mechanical repairs that cause a delay, most airlines will provide vouchers for hotels and meals.

The second is circumstances outside the airline’s control, often referred to as a “Force Majeure event.” These are generally not covered by airlines:

  • Inclement weather or fog
  • Air traffic congestion
  • Airport closures
  • Medical emergencies
  • Strikes
  • Wars
  • Fuel shortages
  • Acts of God (hurricanes, volcanoes, etc.)
  • Labor-related disputes

Tarmac delays

If you’re on the plane, but sitting on the tarmac, waiting to take off or deplane, know your rights.

  • Passengers should be permitted to deplane any domestic flight operated by a U.S. airline if it has remained on the tarmac for more than three hours, according a 2009 rule created by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Exceptions to the rule include safety or security issues, or if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would cause a disruption in airport operations.
  • Airlines should provide food, drinking water, access to restrooms and medical attention after two hours of a flight delay on the tarmac.
  • Airlines are prohibited from scheduling chronically late flights.
  • Airline employees must monitor and respond to passenger complaints and provide information for where complaints can be filed.
  • Airlines must display flight delay information for domestic flights on their websites.

International travel

Travelers on international flights might be entitled to some forms of compensation, depending on the country they’re traveling in. The European Union, for instance, requires airlines to provide food and hotel vouchers to delayed passengers in certain circumstances. If traveling overseas, make a point to research passenger rights in the countries you are traveling to.

Airline policies

Below are the policies on delays and cancellations for major U.S. airlines:

American Airlines

  • If the delay or cancellation is caused by something within the airline’s control, which prevents you from getting to your final destination as expected, American will provide accommodations.
  • The airline will provide one night’s lodging when your flight is diverted to an unscheduled point and that delay is expected to last more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. (unless the stopover point is origin point, stopover point, connection point or point of residence).

Read more on American’s Contract of Carriage.

Continental

  • The airline will provide one night’s lodging and ground transportation (unless provided by the hotel) when your flight is diverted to an unscheduled point and that delay is expected to last more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. (unless the stopover point is origin point, stopover point, connection point or point of residence.)
  • The airline will provide you with snacks and/or meal vouchers if they’ve caused a delay that extends beyond normal meal hours or whenever they’ve provided lodging.
  • The airline will also provide you with one three-minute long-distance phone call if they’ve caused the delay.

Read more on Continental’s Contract of Carriage.

Delta

  • If your flight is delayed, cancelled or you miss a connection because of a Force Majeure event, Delta will refund your ticket.
  • Delta offers the following amenities in the case of non-weather-related delays:
    • First-class passengers who have been delayed two or more hours because of a flight delay or cancellation will be provided with a three-minute domestic phone call. If the delay exceeds four hours, Delta will provide meals. If the delay exceeds four hours between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Delta will pay for a hotel and ground transportation.
    • Business-class passengers who have been delayed two or more hours because of a flight delay or cancellation will be provided with a three-minute domestic phone call. If the delay exceeds four hours between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Delta will pay for a hotel and ground transportation.
    • All other passengers will be provided with hotel accommodations and transportation if your flight is delayed as a result of a misconnection between two Delta flights, and the delay exceeds four hours, and is between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and you have missed the last flight of the day. (That’s a lot of ands.)

Southwest

If Southwest cancels flights, changes a flight’s schedule or delays a flight, the airline will do one of the following:

  • Book the passenger on the next available flight.
  • Refund the unused portion of your fare.
  • Provide credit for the unused portion of your fare toward a future flight.

Read more on Southwest’s Contract of Carriage.

US Airways

  • If a flight is canceled or causes a missed connection that was within the airline’s control, creating an overnight stay, US Airways will provide a hotel room, meal vouchers, and ground transportation (if not provided by the hotel). Passengers without baggage can provide a receipt for reimbursement of any reasonable incidentals such as toiletries.
  • The airline will provide one night’s lodging when your flight is diverted to an unscheduled point and that delay is expected to last more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Unless the stopover point is origin point, stopover point, connection point or point of residence.
  • Reasons US Airways will not provide hotel accommodations include:
    • When a flight is cancelled or causes a missed connection for events outside the airline’s control, including weather and air traffic control decisions.
    • When your trip is interrupted at the city that is your origin point, point of temporary stay, or permanent residence.
    • When the destination on your ticket and the flight on which you are being transported is diverted to another airport in the same metropolitan area for reasons beyond the airline’s control.

Read more on US Airway’s Contract of Carriage.

United

  • The airline will provide a hotel room, meal voucher and transportation to the hotel if there’s no shuttle service in the event that circumstances within United’s control (such as aircraft maintenance) require an unplanned hotel stay.
  • The airline will provide one night’s lodging when your flight is diverted to an unscheduled point, and that delay is expected to last more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. (unless the stopover point is origin point, stopover point, connection point or point of residence).
  • The airline will provide information for booking hotel rooms at discounted rates (at your expense) in the event that circumstances outside of United’s control cause an unplanned hotel stay.
  • If your flight is delayed for whatever reason and you can’t retrieve your luggage, United will provide you with an overnight amenity kit for an unplanned overnight stay.

Read more on United Airline’s Contract of Carriage.

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Published: May 27, 2011