Exactly ten years ago, the plane I took from California was forced to make an emergency landing in Alaska. I was only seven years old at the time, but I can still remember the captain announcing to the entire plane that a passenger had fallen sick and needed immediate medical attention. The flight attendants raced up and down the aisles to let everyone know that the stop in Alaska would only take an hour and that we would be on our way to our final destination.
My family and I waited on the tarmac for several hours and ended up staying a night in a small Alaskan town before heading home. Back then, I didn’t understand why people began to grow restless and impatient with the crew; I was just happy that I got to watch more plane movies. Now at the age of twenty, and after years of reading articles similar to the ones about the recent United Airlines’ overbooked flight fiasco, I started realizing that I’ve been in so many situations at the airport that are questionable, and maybe even illegal. With intimidating TSA agents, cold immigration officers, and tired airport employees, it probably never occurs to most people that they have rights specifically to protect them from major airlines.
Where do these rights come from? When problems arise, your rights as passengers are protected not by consumer-friendly state laws, but rather by international treaties and other regulations. Most recently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has started an initiative called “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” to strengthen these protections.
If you didn’t know already, here are your rights as an airline passenger:
Lost, Damaged, or Delayed Luggage
Up until 2010, the cost of a lost, damaged, or delayed bag that airlines had to pay was somewhere between $500 and $1000. Even if you were traveling with a computer that cost a couple thousand dollars, airlines only had to pay back a fraction of what the passenger lost. Thanks to the DOT, this limited range was extended so that airlines were obligated to pay up to $3,300 for any lost, damaged, or delayed luggage during domestic travels and up to $1,742 for international flights. You must submit receipts to the airline for all the items in the suitcase in order to get an exact compensation amount.
Delays and Cancellations
We all know that airlines just LOVE making their passengers wait in the airport. Knowing how frequent flight delays and cancellations are, it’s no surprise that there are no laws in the United States that prevent these unfortunate events from happening. Contrary to popular belief, however, no airline is obligated to provide meal vouchers or hotels for those stranded in the airport.
But for the people traveling within the European Union, delays and cancellations will get you some perks. Passengers are entitled to money for meals, refreshments, and two telephone calls when there is a considerable delay (two hours for short haul trips and four hours for long haul trips). If the delay is five or more hours, passengers are allowed to get a full reimbursement of the ticket.
What is worse than waiting for a delayed flight in the airport is a tarmac delay. That is when passengers are waiting for the plane to take off inside the plane. After a record number of tarmac delays that lasted more than three hours in 2009 (a total of 535 delays over the span of 4 months), the DOT decided to implement a new rule: domestic planes cannot remain on the tarmac for more than three hours with passengers on board. If planes do not comply with this rule, the responsible airlines will be subject to a fine of $27,500 per passenger. International flights are allowed to remain idle on the tarmac for a maximum of four hours before facing a fine.
Additionally, passengers are entitled to an update about the status of the delay every 30 minutes, an opportunity to deplane if the plane door is voluntarily opened, snacks and water after two hours on the tarmac, and operable lavatories.
Remember, there is a limit to waiting.
Overbooking and Denied Boarding
When Ralph Nader was unable to give a speech in 1972 due to his overbooked flight, he brought the situation to the Supreme Court. He lost Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, giving commercial airlines a precedent that allows them to overbook flights. The DOT recognized that the power to forcibly deny boarding can place a major burden on passengers, so they implemented the following compensation for domestic flights based on the time it takes for the passenger to find a new flight:
0 to 1 hour delay: No compensation
1 to 2 hour delay: 200% of the one-way fare (up to $650)
Over 2 hours delay: 400% of the one-way fare (up to $1,300)
For international flights:
0 to 1 hour delay: No compensation
1 to 4 hour delay: 200% of the one-way fare (up to $650)
Over 4 hours delay: 400% of the one-way fare (up to $1,300)
It is hard to keep in mind your specific rights when you are desperate to get on a plane or get your lost bag back. In the moment, you will feel like you would do anything to get what you want. But passengers aren’t at the mercy of these airline companies. Make sure to know all your rights before your next trip; you never know when you might find yourself at an unexpected stop in Alaska.