Airline Rules: Understanding the Not-So-Fine Print

Airline Rules: Understanding the Not-So-Fine Print

islandspics HK / Alamy
islandspics HK / Alamy

T+L offers advice on surprising airline rules you should know about before booking your next flight.

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.

If You Get Bumped…

Don’t expect a big payday if you get involuntarily bumped from a flight. You are not owed compensation if the airline can get you to your destination on another flight within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time.

If Your Seat Assignment Changes…

You’re out of luck. Airline-ticket contracts do not guarantee a specific seat. So if there’s a last-minute change of aircraft, you may be moved to a dreaded middle seat despite having a confirmed aisle or window assignment. In the airlines' defense, this happens rarely, and usually only when there is a change of aircraft or some other unexpected occurence.

If You Try “Throwaway Ticketing”…

Be aware that most airlines prohibit “throwaway ticketing,” i.e., purchasing a more affordable round-trip airfare when you plan to use the ticket only for a one-way flight. If you try, airlines will often retroactively charge you the higher one-way fare and may even revoke your frequent-flier membership.

If Your Flight Is Canceled…

Canceled or diverted flights don’t necessarily entitle you to a hotel or meal voucher. Southwest Airlines commits only to taking “reasonable steps” to provide a hotel stay, while American Airlines says it will do its best to get you accommodations, “subject to availability”—wording that allows the airline wiggle room.

If You Miss a Flight…

If the ticket was nonrefundable, the airline is under no obligation to get you on the next flight and can invalidate any return portion of the ticket. Ask for clemency from the airline—or buy a new fare.

If You Need an Emergency Refund…

Nonrefundable tickets are refundable—sometimes. You have the right to a refund if you can’t travel because of the death of a traveling companion or immediate family member; a lost passport; jury duty or subpoena; or serious illness of the passenger, traveling companion, or immediate family member. You may be charged a $50 service fee by United. Military personnel called to active duty qualify for a ticket refund without a service fee.

If Your Airfare Decreases After Purchase…

While not part of their contracts of carriage, some airlines (including United, Delta, and American) offer price guarantees that will refund the difference between what you paid and the lower price you found, plus a voucher good toward a future flight. However, you must find the lower fare on the same day you purchased your original ticket. Other airlines, like Virgin America, don’t offer a price guarantee, but will refund the difference of a lower fare, minus a change fee.

If You Want to Check Two Bags for Free…

Most of us know that first- and business-class passengers can check two bags at no charge. But on American, even coach passengers can check their bags for free—as long as they’re flying to Brazil or Asia. Curiously, India doesn’t count as part of Asia.

If You’re Connecting Between Delta Flights

If you’re making a connection between two Delta flights, one domestic and one international, from one New York airport to another (e.g., Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia), Delta will provide ground transportation. That could save you up to $90 in taxi fare.

If You Need to Bring a Cello…

Don’t expect that you can check it as luggage if you’re flying on United. You must carry it on board and pay a full adult fare to let it sit in the empty seat next to you. Southwest, friend to musicians, charges only a child fare. American will let you check it as luggage, but accepts no damage liability.

If You Check In Online…

Here’s a good reason to print out your boarding pass before arriving at the airport: Southwest reserves the right to let its flights depart earlier than scheduled if all passengers with boarding passes are in their seats.

If You Want to Avoid Baggage Fees…

Shop for your souvenirs strategically. These days, when almost every checked bag is charged a fee, it’s nice to know that you can check some goods for free. Specifically, if you fly United from Florida or Hawaii, you can check a box of fruit or flowers at no charge.

If You’re Too Aromatic…

Make sure you bathe before boarding your next flight. United reserves the right to deny boarding to passengers with a “malodorous” condition.

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