Passenger Rights Involving Cancellations and Delays
Many people who regularly travel by plane have encountered situations in which a flight is delayed or cancelled. Few legal requirements apply to airlines in these situations. As provided in the contracts attached to plane tickets, they retain the discretion to cancel, delay, or reschedule flights. An airline is not legally required to rebook a passenger on the next available flight at no extra charge, nor do they need to pay for food and lodging for a passenger during a delay. Some airlines may allow a passenger to book a replacement flight on another airline and transfer the value of the ticket to that airline. This endorsement process means that the airline covers the cost of the replacement ticket, except for any amount that exceeds the cost of the original ticket. However, an airline is not legally required to provide this service either.
If an airline consistently reschedules passengers due to overbooking flights and does not compensate them for the delay, passengers may be able to bring a class action lawsuit against the airline. (See more below about passenger rights involving overbooking.) A passenger also might have a discrimination claim if an airline rescheduled them due to their race, religion, or another protected trait. These are rare situations, though. Airlines recognize that their business depends on keeping their customers happy and avoiding negative publicity. Thus, they have pragmatic reasons to help passengers find solutions or compensate them for delays or cancellations, even without the threat of litigation.
Passenger Rights Involving Delayed Flights
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.
If an airline reasonably should expect that a certain flight always will be delayed, it should refrain from offering that service. Airlines must devise schedules to prevent unnecessary delays that can be foreseen.
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: