Laughing over lunch at the Savannah International Airport with my friend, Dona, after our vacation in Bluffton, South Carolina, my heart suddenly dropped when I checked my email and realized I had received the message that travelers lose sleep over:
“United has changed the departure date, arrival date and arrival time of your flight.”
Scrolling down, I silently prayed that I would only be committed to the tiny airport for a few more hours, but instead, I was rerouted from Savannah to Chicago to Newark — 24 hours later.
Although I get on around 10 flights a year, remarkably, my flights have rarely been delayed or canceled. Which was also why I was left panicking this time around, wondering if I could find another flight, another airline, lodging or compensation.
Unfortunately, many passengers who are left stranded with flight changes find themselves in similar circumstances, even though the Department of Transportation (DOT) provides consumer guidelines at dot.gov/consumer and airlines provide their own on their websites under headlines such as “travel information” “contract of carriage” or “customer service.”
“As a result of DOT initiatives in recent years, more and more passengers are aware of their rights,” Caitlin Harvey, public affairs specialist at the DOT, said. “DOT has improved consumers’ access to information about their rights via the website, enhanced online publications and constant liaison with the news media.”
Maryann Foley of Anchorage, Alaska, and formerly of Long Island, who flies about once a month and has flown over 600,000 miles with Alaska Airlines, says that she now generally understands her rights as a passenger while flying, but she can’t say the same for everyone else.
“I have been on planes where people think they have some rights that they should know they don’t have if they fly regularly,” she said.
If you fly often, it’s important to be aware of DOT standards when it comes to flight cancellations or delays, overbookings and lost luggage so you know what you’re getting into when you step back into that customer service line.
Delayed or canceled flights
According to DOT, 21 percent of flights have failed to arrive on time in the U.S. from January through March of this year. It is these delayed and canceled flights that seem to cause the most confusion among passengers.
Harvey said that one of the most common misconceptions of passengers is that they are entitled to compensation or to be rerouted on another airline if their flight is delayed or canceled. Airlines also will rarely pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight.
Even though it’s not required by law, however, many airlines will choose to endorse a passenger’s ticket on another carrier in the event of a delay or cancelation. It’s good practice to do your own research on other carriers to see if they have seats on a similar, on-time flight.
As airline policies differ, passengers can also ask airline staff if the carrier will pay for meals. Some discount airlines may not provide any amenities for delayed passengers and others also may not if the delay is caused by something out of the airline’s control, such as poor weather.
Although 3.42 out of every 1000 total passengers who did not carry on their baggage lost their bags from January through March of this year, many are found in only a matter of hours and returned to their owners.
In order to ensure that yours are found in the event that they are lost, report your loss to airline personnel before you leave the airport and insist on having a report created as well as a copy made for you to take home.
Unfortunately, you can’t assume that the airline will deliver your bag without a charge when it is found, so make sure that you find out the protocol from the airline while at the airport.
Foley has had her share of airport mishaps, including when her dog, a Husky-German Shepherd mix, got lost in transit from Seattle to New York.
“When I arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the dog wasn’t there, and neither was the luggage of many other passengers. My dog was somewhere over South Dakota and wasn’t scheduled to arrive to J.F.K. until 3 a.m.,” she said.
The airline did not explain to Foley what happened, nor did it provide compensation. In some cases, airlines choose to absorb reasonable expenses incurred as they search for passengers’ missing luggage.
Bumped from an overbooked flight
Although it can be frustrating for passengers, most airlines overbook their flights purposely to compensate for travelers who don’t show up, which can result in some getting “bumped” from a flight.
When passengers are bumped due to overbooking, however, they are usually entitled to compensation, with few exceptions, if no other passengers agree to give up their seats voluntarily in exchange for compensation.
Getting a credit for volunteering your flight seat may seem like a great deal, but be sure to first ask the airline when your seat can be confirmed because if you’re placed on another full flight, you could be stranded once again. You should also inquire if the airline can offer you meals, lodging or transportation to your next flight if needed, or else you could be stuck paying out of your own pocket.
When deciding who will be bumped from a flight, an airline may choose passengers who paid the lowest fare or checked in the latest, even if that check-in met the flight’s deadline.
It is only with the understanding of passenger rights that air travelers can make the best out of bad travel situations, including delayed or canceled flights, lost luggage and overbooked flights.