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Everything You Need to Know about Flight Delays and Passenger Rights

Senior Editor, TipsHire

Will you be flying in the near future? Then you probably realize that flights may be delayed, and not all airlines care about passenger rights. You’ve also surely heard about some airlines’ practice of overbooking and bumping passengers off the plane if everyone turns up.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2016, out of the 315.907 flights registered around the holidays, 27% were delayed, and 1.89% were diverted. You hope it will never happen to you but what if it does? You should be prepared, and preparedness comes from knowing your rights. We’ll discuss them in the following lines, so stay close!

Rights Every Airline Passenger Should Be Aware of

Unfortunately, there is no bill of rights for airline passengers, so don’t expect a list with refunds or rewards you are entitled to in case of flight delays or getting bumped off the plane. Instead, we will review the most common situations and the basic rights every passenger has once they buy a plane ticket.

At the Airport

Before discussing what could happen upon your arrival at the airport and what you can do about it, you should know there are ways to avoid delays and crowds. On one hand, you can check the statistics of the Bureau of Transportation and see which airports are more prone to delays in order to avoid them or prepare, and you can check the weather to see if they forecast any wind or snow storms that could prevent a plane from taking off or landing.

On the other hand, you can arrive at the airport early. The check-in, security, and boarding process may take longer than usual, so the sooner you get through it the better. Once you’re off the hook, you can kill time online using the airport Wi-Fi, or head to the bar for a drink or a snack.

Assuming something goes wrong and your flight is delayed, the law states the airline has the obligation to notify you if the delay exceeds 30 minutes. However, you shouldn’t take this rule for granted, as flight delays depend on numerous factors (weather, mechanical issues) and they are difficult to estimate and foresee.

When the delay reaches several hours, or the flight is cancelled, it may be worth trying to find another flight with a different airline. If you succeed, ask the airline you had the ticket for if they will pay for the new ticket. The law does not force them to do so, but reputable companies may agree in order to keep their ratings high.

What happens after you buy a plane ticket depends on the “conditions of carriage” of the airline you’re using. To give you an idea, here is a link to American Airlines’ carriage conditions. Most airlines have similar policies in place, to clearly explain what rights passengers have when buying tickets with the respective airline, and what kind of treatment they can expect every step of their experience. Therefore, before you head to the airport, or even while waiting for your flight, don’t hesitate to check the policy of the company you are flying with.

Airlines file these conditions with the government, so you can sue them if they fail to comply. The document stipulates the minimum they are willing to offer, but, in some cases, they may agree to provide additional benefits, so it doesn’t hurt to ask. One thing is for sure: in case of significant delay, if you decide to cancel your trip, you are entitled to a refund. This applies even to non-refundable tickets and covers checked bag fees as well.

On the Plane

Even if there are no delays, problems may still occur. Most airlines have embraced the practice of overbooking. This is simply because, despite buying tickets, some people miss their flight or change their mind. They sell extra tickets to make sure they fly at full capacity. What happens when all passengers show up?

Obviously, the plane can only fly with the allowed number of passengers on board, so some passengers will have to remain on the ground, as many as necessary. In order to determine who gets left behind, the airline crew should comply with the carriage conditions. With most companies, these involve that:

  • The crew will ask for volunteers and offer a small amount of cash as a reward. In some cases, the amount is four times the value of the plane ticket, so it could be a decent deal for those who can afford to wait for a few more hours or days.
  • If they do not have enough volunteers, they will choose which passengers to bump according to their carriage conditions. Some companies bump those who booked their tickets last, but other aspects may influence their decision as well, like ticket price, time of arrival at the airport, etc.
  • Upon bumping passengers, they should provide a written notice explaining passengers’ rights and, in most cases, a compensation check or free flights.

Sometimes, even though no flight delays are announced and the boarding process goes smoothly, the plane remains on the tarmac for hours. It could be due to bad weather or to a mechanical hiccup. If it happens, keep in mind that, after two hours, the airline has the obligation to ensure food, water, and working lavatories. When the delay reaches three hours for national flights or four hours for international ones, the passengers can decide to get off the plane and request a refund.

Upon Arrival

Let’s assume none of the above happens, and you reach your destination safe and sound. You may be in for a nasty surprise when you go to pick up your luggage. It could be lost forever, on a flight to another destination, or on the next flight to wherever you are.

Depending on the circumstances, you should be entitled to compensation. Keep in mind, though, that the compensation aims to cover reasonable expenses you may incur until you recover your luggage, not get you the moon and the stars.

You can’t snap your fingers and get your luggage to where you are, but the following advice may help you get by until you recover it, and receive some compensation for your troubles:

  • At the airport, when asking for information on your luggage, don’t lose control. Remember that the people in front of you are only employees of the airlines. They didn’t carry your luggage, and they’re not the ones who lost it, but they might be able to help you get it back. Give them a break, as shouting and screaming won’t help them focus and become more efficient.
  • If you have to stand in line to reach the customer service desk, try calling the airline’s support number. If you are lucky, you’ll come across a sympathetic customer service agent who’s solved situations like yours before and knows whom to call and what strings to pull.
  • Check your credit card terms and conditions. Most credit cards nowadays include free travel insurance that covers delays, flight cancellations, a concierge to help you find another flight, and even lost or stolen luggage.
  • Don’t hesitate to keep your social media contacts up to date with the adventure, and tag the airline in your posts. They usually have people monitoring online platforms, and they take measures to avoid bad publicity. Your posts will most likely prompt them to try and solve your problem as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, even when you know your rights and the airline company does not violate them, you might still spend hours at the airport, especially around the holidays. No matter how many people are waiting to board their plane, the Transportation Security Administration still need to do their job, and this may take time. You already know why they do it, and losing your patience won’t help speed things up. Instead, consider following the tips below, to know what to expect and avoid causing delays yourself.

Tips on Easing Your Way through Airport Security and Avoiding Delays

  • If your trip involves leaving the country, make sure you know what crossing the border means, what could go wrong, and what rights you have. It is better to be prepared than find yourself retained not knowing what to do or whom to call. You’ll find a helpful guide here.
  • Before leaving to the airport, make sure everything is packed carefully and according to airport security guidelines. All liquids, creams, gels, or aerosols (shampoo, conditioners, perfume, shaving cream, sun lotion, etc.) should be in bottles smaller than 3.4 ounces and fit into a single quart size plastic bag. If you need larger quantities, let the TSA officers know, so that they may screen them separately.
  • Try to avoid wearing bulky jewelry, hair accessories, scarves, or belts at the airport, as you may have to remove them and have them screened separately. You will also have to empty your pockets, and it helps to place your belongings in one the carry-on bags in order to avoid losing them.
  • Make sure you pack no prohibited items, otherwise you could spend hours explaining yourself, and maybe even go to jail.
  • When entering the checkpoint line, have your boarding pass and ID ready and hand them over to the TSA agent. This way, you won’t have to look for it and keep everyone waiting until you find it.
  • When you reach the divesting table, remove liquid bags and any electronics bigger than your smartphone from the carry-on baggage and place them in the checkpoint bin, making sure there is nothing underneath or on top of them.
  • After you’ve passed security, when you collect your belonging, don’t forget to check the screening bin, to make sure you don’t forget any items in it. Passengers often leave wallets, phones, laptops, ID, and even loose change behind.

If you follow the above tips and you know the carriage conditions of the airline you’re flying with, you should be able to obtain help and compensations from the airline in case something goes wrong. However, if they fail to comply and they violate your rights, consider getting an attorney and taking legal action against them. They get away with their abuse precisely because people don’t fight for their rights and prefer to avoid trials and bureaucracy. Every once in a while someone should teach them a lesson.

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