Being the ex-general counsel at Expedia and now running Avvo and its free legal advice Q&A forum, I am often asked “What are my rights if my flight is horrendously delayed?” This question usually comes from someone who just spent an unexpected afternoon on the tarmac due to flight delays.
Well, before you get too excited to learn about your rights, I must inform you that you don’t have any. Zippo. Zilch. Nada. Yep, let’s get your gasps out of the way upfront. I know you hear about travelers’ rights all of the time on TV, and you are sure that as an American you have the right to sue any flight attendant who refuses you an extra bag of party mix, but the reality is that your only rights are those that the airline gives you in its carriage agreement.
What is this mysterious carriage agreement, you ask? When you buy an airline ticket, the airline clearly discloses that you are entering into an agreement (i.e. a binding contract) with the airline. You agree to give them your hard-earned cash, and they agree to give you certain services in return. If one of your “rights” is not in that agreement, then it doesn’t exist. Now, let’s not take this too far: The airline cannot do anything that is illegal, such as assault you or discriminate against you. What I’m talking about is the level of service that the airline is required to give you, such as whether an airline needs to let you off an airplane after you have been sitting on the tarmac for four hours, or whether they can charge you for an overweight bag, or how much they must pay you for losing your luggage. You might think the Federal Aviation Administration has a bunch of rules for this sort of thing, but they simply do not.
OK, so if your flight is so delayed that it wrecks your entire vacation, are you simply out of luck? Well, if you want to sue the airline for lost sun time, yes. But there is still hope, for a number of reasons: First, airlines have at least some business sense and realize that if they treat their customers poorly they will not survive. But possibly more importantly, the Department of Transportation (your tax dollars at work) has persuaded the airlines to maintain certain “rights” in their carriage agreements which generally provide the following:
* If your flight is delayed more than four hours between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, the airline must give you vouchers for and transportation to a hotel room.
* If your flight is delayed by (typically) two hours, the airline will give you free meal vouchers. However, this right is quickly changing and quite often is reserved only for first-class passengers.
* If your flight is delayed more than two hours, the airline must afford you a free three-minute phone call anywhere in the continental US. Now, admittedly this is becoming outdated with the prevalence of mobile phones, but it is one of your rights!
Ok, so it’s not much and, yes, it is almost entirely within the airline’s control. But knowledge is power and at least requesting to be “240’d” (airline parlance for the rights above) as night sets in may increase your chance of resting your head on a hotel pillow rather than your carry-on.
And of course, at Avvo, we are always here to answer all of your legal questions: travel-related or otherwise. You can go directly to our free legal advice Q&A forum to ask your personal legal questions—anonymously if desired—and real attorneys will answer them.