Passengers' Legal Rights Involving Cancellations and Delays
Many travelers have encountered situations in which a flight is delayed or cancelled. As provided in the contracts attached to plane tickets, airlines retain the discretion to cancel, delay, or reschedule flights. An airline is generally not required to compensate a passenger if a flight is delayed or cancelled. (The main exception is involuntary bumps due to overbooking, which is discussed in more detail below.) Passenger rights during a delay thus depend on the policy of the individual airline. A passenger might be able to get compensation for food or lodging during a long delay, but not all airlines offer this assistance. An airline is not required to put a passenger on another airline's flight or reimburse them if they get a replacement ticket on a flight operated by another airline. In some situations involving significant delays, a passenger might be entitled to a refund, but this depends on the specific circumstances.
If a passenger cancels their trip because their flight was cancelled, the airline must offer them a refund for the ticket (and any ticket-related costs), but it is not required to compensate them for any other costs related to the cancellation or the cancelled trip. If the passenger does not cancel their trip, the airline generally will book them on the next available flight to the same destination for free. As with delays, an airline is not required to put a passenger on another airline's flight, but it may do so.
Should You Accept a Voucher?
Some airlines offer vouchers for future travel as an alternative to a refund, but restrictions may apply. For example, a passenger should make sure that they are aware of any expiration date on the voucher and limits on dates of travel and number of seats.
Tarmac Delays After Boarding the Plane
Some delays occur after passengers already have boarded a plane and are waiting to take off. Within two hours of a tarmac delay, an airline must provide food and water to passengers. It also must allow them to use the aircraft lavatories. If a tarmac delay extends for three hours, an airline generally must allow passengers to leave the plane. (For international flights, this time is extended to four hours.) If a safety or security issue caused the delay, though, or if air traffic control decides that this would significantly disrupt airport operations, the passengers may be required to stay on the plane.
Passenger Rights Involving Overbooking
Airlines understand that some passengers fail to show up for flights that they booked. If this happens, a plane will have empty seats. To maximize their profits, airlines tend to overbook flights. This means that they sell more tickets than the plane contains seats, anticipating that the extra tickets sold will balance the passengers who fail to appear. Airlines cannot calculate this balance accurately every time, and situations may occur in which the number of passengers at the gate exceeds the number of seats. The US Department of Transportation requires airlines to deal with this situation by offering compensation, such as cash or vouchers, to passengers who agree to change their tickets to a later flight.
Unfortunately, not enough passengers may agree to be "bumped," and the airline may need to bump some passengers involuntarily. The Federal Aviation Administration provides rights to victims of involuntary bumps. Under FAA rules, a passenger must receive a written statement of their rights and the boarding priority rules and criteria for the airline. If an involuntary bump prevents a passenger from reaching their destination within one hour of their original arrival time, they may receive compensation consisting of 200 percent of the one-way fare for the flight, subject to a set maximum. If an involuntary bump results in an arrival delay of over two hours for a domestic flight, or over four hours for an international flight, a passenger may receive compensation consisting of 400 percent of the one-way fare for the flight, subject to a set maximum.
To qualify for a refund after an involuntary bump, a passenger must: