A guide to air-passenger rights in the U.S. and Europe

Smarter Travel

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When something goes wrong on a trip, the first question many flyers ask is, "What are my rights?" The short answer is fairly simple: The U.S. and the European Economic Community (EEC) have established some very specific rights for air travelers. In addition, contracts of carriage between passengers and carriers establish some promised rights, but those heavily one-sided contracts seldom call for any specific compensation or enforcement teeth in the event the carrier fails to meet its "promises."

Either way, it's important for passengers to know their rights when faced with air-travel snafus, from delayed flights to overbooked planes. The following is a primer on basic air-passenger rights in the U.S. and Europe.

Honest fares in Europe and the U.S.

When booking a flight, the price you see is the price you pay—that's the law. The EEC and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) require airlines to display the full cost of an air ticket, including all mandatory airline charges, governmental taxes and user fees, in online postings and other advertising. Travel providers, from online travel agencies (OTAs) to airline websites, must clearly display full prices or face penalties.

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U.S. air-passenger rights: bumping

The DOT mandates certain air-travel rights, including passenger rights in cases of involuntary bumping, by requiring airlines to cover them in their contracts. (Check the DOT's FAQ sheet for full particulars.)

When an airline bumps you involuntarily due to overbooking, it may owe you compensation—unless the airline can get you to your destination within one hour of your scheduled arrival, in which case it owes you no compensation.

If your airline can get you to your destination between one and two hours of your scheduled arrival on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international trip, it owes you compensation of 200 percent of the one-way fare to your destination, up to $650. If the airline can't make these time requirements, it owes you 400 percent of the fare, up to $1,300. If your airline elects to arrange alternate transportation on another airline, it must cover all of the expenses and extras that the new airline might assess.

In any case, you get to keep your original ticket, which you can use for a subsequent trip or have refunded. DOT adjusts compensation values for inflation every two years.

As a practical matter, only about 10 percent of overbooked travelers get involuntarily bumped. Instead, most accept airlines' offers of confirmed seats on later flights, plus vouchers for up to several hundred dollars toward future tickets and cash for meals. These rules also apply to "zero fare" tickets, most notably frequent-flyer awards, with monetary amounts based on the prices of similar tickets. They apply to all domestic flights and international flights departing from the U.S. but not to inbound international flights. Travelers must have confirmed reservations on scheduled flights and meet the airline's check-in and gate-arrival deadlines.

Involuntary-denied-boarding rules do not apply to flights on planes with fewer than 30 passengers (this is not a serious flaw, as almost all regional airlines now use larger planes). And, most importantly, these rules do not apply when an airline bumps a traveler for any reason other than overbooking—for example, as a result of a switch to a smaller plane, for weight-and-balance issues on planes that seat 30 to 60 passengers, or if a flight is delayed or canceled.

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U.S. air-passenger rights: delays and cancellations

If, for any reason, your flight is canceled, substantially delayed or rescheduled, you have the right to reroute at no extra cost or to receive a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket. Airline policies vary, however, about what constitutes a "substantial" delay or schedule change.

Federal rules require that domestic airlines and foreign carriers flying into the U.S. file "Customer Service Plans," which describe what the airline promises to do in the case of a long list of circumstances, including delays, cancellations, and diversion events, among others. (For the most part, these commitments are restatements, in plain language, of the more detailed legalese of each airline's official contract of carriage.) Contracts and service plans generally call for meal vouchers when a delay extends over a normal meal time and for hotel accommodations in the event of an overnight delay. But implementation varies by airline.

In the event of a delay, a few airlines say that they will transfer you to another airline if that carrier can get you to your destination earlier than your original flight. A few others say they "may" transfer you, but the decision is theirs, and still other airlines only offer a seat on their own next-available flight. Neither customer-service plans nor contracts of carriage call for specific compensation when an airline fails to meet its commitment.

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U.S. air-passenger rights: tarmac delays

During a lengthy tarmac delay in the U.S. (upon either arrival or departure), the DOT mandates that an airline may not keep you on a plane for more than three hours (on a domestic flight) or four hours (on an international flight) without allowing you to get off if you wish, subject to security and safety considerations. Each airline is also obligated to provide food and water after two hours of delay, provide updates to passengers every 30 minutes, and assure that airplane lavatories are operable.

When an airline violates the tarmac rules, you receive no compensation. Instead, the DOT fines the airline.

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Europe air-passenger rights: bumping and overbooking

The EEC's Regulation EC261 establishes passenger rights similar to—and generally exceeding—U.S. DOT requirements. The current rules apply when you board a flight on either a scheduled or charter airline at any airport within an EEC member state and also when you fly into an EEC airport on an airline based in the EEC, Norway or Switzerland. As in the U.S., you must meet check-in deadlines and other airline requirements for the rules to apply. And compensation applies if you're on a frequent-flyer ticket.

If an airline is unable to get you to your final destination within three hours of your scheduled arrival, EEC requirements call for "Article 7" compensation: €250 for passengers on flights of 1,500 km or less in distance; €400 for passengers on flights of more than 1,500 km within the EEC or flights of 1,500 to 3,500 km outside the EEC; and €600 for passengers on all flights of 3,501 km or more outside the EEC. All flights from the EEC to North America are longer than 3,500 km (2,175 miles). On connecting flights, the distance is calculated to your final destination, not to some intermediate hub. Upon request, airlines must also offer "Article 8" assistance, either rerouting bumped passengers or offering them full refunds.

If you're bumped, the EEC regulation also requires that airlines provide "Article 9" care: meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to waiting time, hotel accommodations in cases where a stay of one or more nights becomes necessary, and transport.

The EEC directive does not limit this bumping compensation just to instances of overbooking. It applies to any instance except those related to weather or other “extraordinary circumstances.”

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Europe air-passenger rights: delays and cancellations

EC261 says that if your flight is canceled, you're entitled to Article 7, Article 8 and Article 9 provisions. The Article 7 financial compensation does not apply, however, if an airline notifies you of a cancellation more than two weeks before departure, if the airline notifies you seven to 14 days in advance and reroutes you to arrive in your final destination within four hours of your originally scheduled time, or if you're informed less than seven days in advance but the airline can reroute you to arrive at your destination within two hours of your original arrival time. Cancellation penalties do not apply when the cancellation is caused by "extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken."

In the event of a delay of three hours or more, you are entitled to the standard Article 7 compensation. Also, if the delay exceeds five hours, you are entitled to an Article 8 refund. These provisions also apply to extended tarmac delays.

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Europe air-passenger rights: enforcement

It's easy to print a complaint form from the EEC passenger-rights website and send it to the airline. But studies have uncovered many cases in which airlines did not offer compensation or inform travelers of their rights to it, as well as some cases in which airlines stonewalled legitimate claims. Reports also indicate that some U.S. citizens have had difficulties receiving compensation from European airlines for delays and cancellations on inbound flights covered by the EEC regulations. The situation is apparently bad enough that several online start-ups are offering legal assistance to travelers attempting to collect from recalcitrant airlines. Among the start-ups are refund.me, Flight-Delayed, and EUclaim. Typically, these outfits assess either a flat fee or 25 percent of the compensation recovered.

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