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Airline Passenger Bill of Rights
Airline Passenger Bill of Rights

Flight Rights

Aug 31, 2018
by Debra Newby, Newby Law

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DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me at debra@newbylawoffice.com. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Debra:

Last month my family flew to Connecticut for a long-awaited vacation. Our connection time in Chicago was supposed to be 1 ½ hours, but due to “crew scheduling issues”, our flight was delayed an additional three hours. We did not arrive until 3 am (instead of 10 pm as scheduled). Do I have any “flight rights?”

Signed: Red-Eyed Rachael

Dear Rachael,

So glad you asked, especially when we are in the height of summer vacation travel. We may all recall the horror stories of bygone days—the American Airline flight that kept their passengers on the tarmac for eight long hours in 2006, without food, water, or a bathroom break. Then, do you remember the United Flight in April 2017, where a passenger was dragged off the plane because the flight was overbooked? Such atrocities ignited an uproar in the passenger community.

In reaction, the “Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights” was introduced in Congress in June 2017. The airline lobby fought back but key provisions did become law. Now if you are stuck on the tarmac for more than two hours, the airline must offer snacks, water, and a clean lavatory (and must also offer the opportunity for you to get off the plane if you are stuck for three hours or more).   

Flash forward to the summer of 2018. Check out the website of the U.S. Department of Transportation, updated March 13, 2018, which offers handy tips regarding your travel rights. (See transportation.gov/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/flight-delays-cancellations.)

The issue is complicated. First, realize that any consumer protections apply to domestic flights only. But if you do fly “across the pond”, Europe is ahead of the curve. If you are on an international flight and you arrive more than four hours after your estimated arrival time (due to issues within the airline’s control), then you may be entitled to compensation, anywhere from $250-600 Euros, depending on how long you were delayed.

Airline companies cannot simply wave a magic wand and make the rain clouds disappear. Most airline carrier contracts contain a Force Majeure clause, which is legalese to describe unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances that the airline is NOT liable for—like “acts of God”, storms, rain, wind, fire, government actions, riots, civil commotions, hostilities…you get the picture. Generally, your only options are patience.   

However, airlines can control matters such as mechanical issues and crew scheduling, which may be grounds for negotiations. So, the first task is to verify the cause of the delay. If it is the weather (which is often the case), grin and bear it—and be glad that the airlines are cautious enough to not put their passengers in harm’s way by taking off during an approaching storm.

Each airline has adopted their own policy toward travel delays. Just last month my husband and I were returning home from the Seattle area. Our Southwest flight was delayed three hours. We were told the delay was because of scheduling issues. My lawyer brain kicked in. Ah-ha, I thought….sounds like that was in their control. So I asked to speak to a supervisor and inquired (with a smile) whether any compensation or future award credit would be offered for the delay. The Supervisor replied, “No”. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that some compensation was due if the delay was more than three hours due to an issue within their control. So, I asked again, with an even sweeter smile.

The Supervisor said ‘No” again and returned with a 40-page handout, entitled Southwest Airlines Company—Contract of Carriage—Passenger. She was right. Southwest has adopted a rather strict policy for flight delays. Moral of the story: Even though our federal government has enacted some baseline protections for passengers, each airline is different. Check out your airline’s website BEFORE you travel to understand their policies. 

And if it helps, please keep in mind the comforting words of T.S. Eliot, “The journey not the arrival matters.” Happy travels!

Barrister Bits by Debra A. Newby

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