What Are Your Airline Passenger Rights?
After United Airlines brilliant display of customer service – here, let us assist you off of our airplane – many travelers have wondered about their airline passenger rights.
Like many things in life, the answer is, “it all depends”.
The All-Important “Conditions of Carriage”
Whether you know it or not, when you buy an airline ticket, you also agree to their Conditions of Carriage.
This document details the rules and regulations by which the airline agrees to provide service, and your obligations to the airline in terms of showing up for your flight, the weight and size of your luggage, your behavior on the airplane, etc.
The Problems with Conditions of Carriage
The first problem with the Conditions of Carriage document is that no one reads it. The airlines are counting on this. They don’t particularly want you to know your airline passenger rights, and in fact, will often ignore them if you don’t insist on them.
The second issue is that each airline has slightly different terms in their Conditions of Carriage. To further complicate matters, some countries have laws that supersede the airlines’ terms.
For example, if you’re on an Air Canada flight out of New York, in addition to Air Canada’s terms, you are protected by American Department of Transport laws which cover all airlines flying out of their airports.
That might be good for you, if you knew the details, which is unlikely. Remember, if you have an issue with Air Canada in New York, you’ll be talking to Air Canada staff who may not be forthcoming about your airline passenger rights.
On the other hand, if you’re flying Air Canada out of Toronto, you only have Air Canada’s terms, because Canada doesn’t have airline passenger rights or protection laws. The current federal government is promising relevant legislation soon. We’ll see.
Were United’s Actions Legal?
Every airline’s Conditions of Carriage has a section that outlines that they can refuse boarding to a passenger for a variety of reasons, usually overbooking.
However, the debate starts over the term “refuse boarding”. It is generally accepted that this means, “before you get on the aircraft”, and that once you’re onboard and in your seat, they can no longer refuse boarding since they have already allowed you to board.
United may try to say that their Conditions of Carriage includes anyone already on the plane, but it’s hard to imagine it will hold up in court. What should United have done? They had offered compensation for passengers to voluntarily get off the aircraft. No one took them up on it. They should have raised their offer until four people accepted it.
When is an Airline Absolutely Within Their Rights to Reject You?
If you are drunk, belligerent or deemed a potential threat to passengers, crew or the aircraft, the airline is within their right to deny you boarding or get you off the plane, even after it’s airborne, without compensation. We’ve all seen stories of planes making unscheduled landings to eject a passenger.
Aside from taking you off the airplane, they may also put you on a no-fly list, file criminal charges or sue you for damages. So, it’s best to behave to avoid these unpleasant outcomes.
What Happens When a Flight is Overbooked?
If a flight is overbooked, and everyone shows up, the airline has no choice but to reduce the number of passengers. They will ask for volunteers and offer compensation for not boarding that flight.
The amount of compensation offered to volunteers is up to the airline and generally depends on:
- The length of the flight and whether it’s domestic or international
- How long before the next flight to that destination, assuming they can accommodate you on that flight
- Whether the next flight is same day or the next day, in which case, they will likely offer hotel accommodation too
If you don’t mind the delay (in fact some people look for these kinds of overbooked flights for the “free money”), you can ask personnel about the details of the compensation without committing to accepting it. If you like the offer, be quick to accept it before they choose others.
If you want to gamble, sometimes the airline ups the ante if it doesn’t get volunteers for the first compensation offer. But, not always, so it’s a roll of the dice.
Most often, the airline finds enough volunteers. Generally, airlines give the compensation to volunteers on the spot and the flight proceeds.
Who is Denied Boarding?
If they can’t get enough volunteers, some passengers will be denied boarding.
How does an airline determine who gets denied? Again, it all depends.
At check-in, airline personnel can see passenger status on their screens. This means that boarding preference will go to loyal customers, those who paid top dollar for their ticket, elderly or visibly disabled customers, and finally those who checked in early for the flight.
Who will be denied first?
- Those who don’t fly that airline often
- Bargain shoppers who found a low-cost ticket
- Laggards who checked in late
- Anyone already behaving like an idiot, complaining about delays, etc.
Compensation If You are Denied Boarding in the U.S.
So, if you are involuntarily bumped, what compensation should you receive?
You already know the answer… it all depends. This time, it depends mainly on which country you’re in.
In the U.S., the Department of Transport (DOT) has clear compensation rules that apply to all airlines. In summary, the rules say:
- If you’re flying from a U.S. destination, you should receive 200% of the cost of your one-way fare including taxes, to a maximum of $675 for a delay of up to two hours on a domestic flight, up to four hours on an international flight
- For longer delays, the compensation is 400% of the cost of your one-way fare to a maximum of $1,350
- If you paid for optional services, e.g., seat selection and did not receive them on your substitute flight, the airline that bumped you must refund those payments too
- If your ticket doesn’t have a price on it (you bought it on points for example), the airline must use the lowest cost fare for your class of ticket for compensation calculations
- You may also decide not to fly on “the next flight” and make alternate arrangements. In that case, you can ask for an “involuntary refund” for your ticket which is in addition to any compensation provided.
Compensation for Denied Boarding in Canada
Technically, it’s up to the airlines. We don’t have laws similar to the U.S. However, due to customer complaints, the Canada Transport Agency (CTA) forced Air Canada to raise their minimums, which are substantially lower than the American ones:
- For a delay of up to two hours, it’s $200
- For a delay between two and six hours, it’s $400
- For delay of six or more hours, it’s $800
- Alternatively, Air Canada can offer travel vouchers for three times the value of those amounts (a much better deal if you can use them)
Depending on the situation, hotel and meal compensation may also be provided. But again, it is up to the airline.
In a further CTA ruling that applies to Porter Airlines, they forced Porter to offer the same compensation as the DOT in the U.S. Why doesn’t this also apply to all Canadian airlines? Who knows…
Compensation in the European Union
The European Union bases compensation for denied boarding, cancellation or significant delay at arrival on the length of the flight.
- For flights 1,500 km or less, it’s €250
- For flights 1,500 to 3,500 km, it’s €400
- For flights longer than 3,500 km, it’s €600
- Depending on the situation, there may also be hotel and meal compensation.
Stop the Presses! You May Have to Demand Your Full Compensation
Remember the importance of “know your rights”?
Even though these are the compensation rules as they stand today, that doesn’t mean you’ll immediately be offered these amounts. Airlines train staff to start with low-ball offers. If you accept the offer, well, you did so voluntarily.
You will likely have to insist on the proper amounts. Show them that you know the law and expect them to compensate you accordingly. Once they see that you’re familiar with the amounts, they are usually quick to provide compensation before the shouting starts.
Important Points to Remember
This post relates to getting involuntarily bumped from a flight.
It does not apply to issues deemed beyond the airlines’ control. Airlines have a broad interpretation of this. It includes weather, mechanical difficulties, late arrival of your plane from another destination, etc.
How to Avoid Getting Bumped
There are many things you can do to increase your odds of getting on the plane and staying on it.
- Be loyal. Airlines know who their best customers are and are less likely to inconvenience them.
- Join their frequent flyer program. It’s another sign of loyalty.
- Do your research on airlines. Some are notorious for over-booking (hello United, Air Canada…) while others don’t seem to follow the “profit-enhancing” policies. When possible, choose the good guys.
- Arrive early. Check in, choose your seat ahead of time and get on the plane. Slow-pokes lose in this game.
Planning a Trip? We Don’t Go Without Travel Insurance
These days there are many things that can happen when you travel, aside from getting bumped from a flight. That’s why we always get insurance for our trips. It covers damage, loss or theft of our belongings, health issues and if necessary, emergency evacuation. Better safe than sorry.
Get a Quote: It’s Easy and Free
Whether you’ve just booked your trip or are already underway, you can get covered. Complete the form and get a quote. With a few clicks, you can buy your coverage online. It’s fast, easy and convenient.
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