Know your rights before you board that plane
By Attorney General Roy Cooper
If your summer plans include air travel, make sure you know your rights before you purchase an airline ticket or board a plane.
The Internet is a great tool for finding deals on airfare. For the best rates, try different websites and check on different days and times of day. Once you’ve selected a flight, read the fine print before you purchase a ticket so you are familiar with the rules and regulations.
Study the cancellation policy carefully and make sure you understand it. Most discounted airfares aren’t refundable. So if you buy one of these fares and later need to cancel your trip, chances are you won’t get your money back. Some airlines may allow you to apply your ticket to a future trip, but you may have to pay an extra fee.
Many fares also have a penalty for changing flights. For example, if you bought a ticket to fly on Tuesday and need to fly Wednesday instead, you’ll have to pay any difference in costs if your fare-type is not available on the new flight.
Delayed and cancelled flights
Since delays and cancellations are common in airline travel, it’s a good idea to travel early if you are traveling to an important meeting or special occasion.
If your flight is cancelled or delayed causing you to miss your connecting flights, most airlines will rebook you on the next available flight at no additional cost. Airlines are not required to compensate you or provide you with meals or lodging if you’re stuck in the airport, but it never hurts to ask.
Overbooking and bumping
Selling more tickets than the airplane has seats is common practice and is allowed under federal regulations. Airlines often do this to ensure that planes are full even if some passengers don’t show up. If a flight is overbooked, the airline is required to ask for volunteers in exchange for compensation, often a free voucher for a future flight. If you volunteer and the airline offers you a voucher, ask about restrictions on how long it’s good for, if there are blackout periods and whether it can be used for international flights.
If not enough people volunteer to leave the flight, the airline can bump passengers involuntarily. Under federal rules, if you’re bumped involuntarily, you should get a written statement outlining your rights. The airline should also reschedule you on another flight and you may be entitled to compensation in the form of cash or check in certain circumstances.
Most airlines now charge extra fees for checked or overweight baggage, so be sure to check with the airline before you purchase your ticket if you’re expecting to check your luggage. As many of us have experienced, when you check your luggage it may arrive at your destination damaged, delayed – or not at all. If your luggage is damaged, ask the airline to pay to repair it, or to pay you money toward a new bag.
If your luggage doesn’t make it to your destination on time, file a report with the airline before you leave the airport and keep a copy for your records. Ask if the airline will reimburse you for extra costs you’ll pay until you get your luggage back, such as a new toothbrush and a change of clothes.
If your luggage is permanently lost, submit a claim with the airline and include detailed and accurate information about what was in your luggage. The airline will review your claim and negotiate a settlement with you, which could take up to three months.
Remember it’s best not to check expensive items because if the airline loses it along with your luggage, federal law caps how much the airline has to repay you.
How to complain
Airlines are supposed post information about how consumers can file complaints on their websites, ticket confirmations and airport gates. When consumers complain, the airlines are required under federal rules to respond to the complaints within 60 days.
If you’ve complained to the airline but don’t feel you’ve received a satisfactory response, file a complaint with the US DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division at 202-366-2220 or online at www.dot.gov/airconsumer. For more detailed information on air travel, see the US DOT’s Aviation Consumer Rights Guide.