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Airline Rules: Understanding the Not-So-Fine Print

Airline Rules: If Your Flight Is Canceled

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A recent US Airways flight I took to New York City ended up in Charlotte, NC, overnight because of severe storms. When the airline didn’t offer any sort of meal or hotel-room voucher, I was surprised—until I checked the fine print and realized it was under no such obligation.

In fact, what you don’t know about an airline’s contract of carriage (the litany of ticket rules found on a carrier’s website) can wreak havoc on your travel plans.

“These contracts of carriage are written by the airlines for their own protection,” says Bay Area–based attorney Alexander Anolik, who has authored eight books on travel law. Some of the airline rules are, in Anolik’s words, “absolutely onerous”; others may simply raise your eyebrows.

A few of the key areas of concern for passengers: whether airlines must provide meals and lodging during long delays; whether they have to offer ticket refunds for long delays and cancellations; whether they must provide alternative transportation, even on another airline, if they can’t fly you to your destination; whether they can bump you from a flight; even whether they can kick you off a plane for the way you smell. Some of these considerations are a matter of airline policy, while others fall under Department of Transportation regulations.

It pays to read the fine print, but rules or no rules, you should complain to a higher authority if you feel you have been mistreated. “Travelers have a friend in the DOT,” says Anolik. “If the DOT gets enough consumer complaints about something in a contract of carriage, they will tell the airline to get that out of their contract.”

And the DOT isn’t afraid to flex its executive muscle, either. In February 2012, Allegiant airlines got socked with $100,000 in fines for not meeting full-fare advertising rules, among other errors. In April, the DOT fined Frontier Airlines $50,000 for throwing a quadriplegic passenger off a flight, saying it could not accommodate him. In May, Air India was fined $80,000 for failing to put information on its website about customer service obligations and tarmac delays.

But to be prepared in the airport if you’re ready to take off and believe an airline is treating you unfairly or illegally, you should read the fine print before leaving home. We’ve decoded airlines rules for you here, and some will surprise you.

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