What Are Your 'Rights' When You Fly?

11/28/2011 09:36 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2012

There's the Bill of Rights and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But what about your "rights" as an airline passenger? Do you have any, really? What recourse do you have when something goes bump in the flight? You might be surprised to learn that even though the US DOT has recently announced some new passenger regulations, there are probably fewer than you think -- and your rights vary depending on the country you're flying within or from. Here's a rundown. First of a two part article.

Bumping (involuntary denied boarding), domestic flights, US

Scenario: The airline sells more fares than it has seats on your flight. Someone's got to stay behind and that someone is you.

Recourse: You may be entitled to cash compensation. If you're bumped from a flight and the airline rebooks you to arrive an hour or less from your original arrival time, there's no compensation. Two to four hours, you are entitled to as much as $650 (the actual amount will be up to 200% of the applicable one-way fare); over four hours, up to $1,300 or 400% of the one-way fare. You're entitled to receive payment in cash. Do not accept a travel voucher since these often come with restrictions and extra hassle. Take the money and run. (Read more about bumping here.)

Bumping, international flights from the US

Scenario: You're bumped from a flight from the US to a foreign airport.

Recourse: Same compensation levels, but the lower amount applies to arriving one to four hours after your original time and the higher amount to over four hours.

Taxiway/Runway delays

Scenario: You're stuck on the plane for more than three hours before take off or upon landing.

Recourse: Thanks to new DOT rules, you now have the right to request to deplane after your domestic flight has been delayed on the taxiway (aka, the "tarmac") or runway for more than three hours -- or four hours if it's an international flight. This doesn't mean that you'll actually get off the plane (there are a few loopholes in the regulation).

Delayed flights

Scenario: You're off to a wedding, an important meeting, or Uncle Sid's funeral, but your flight is delayed for hours or canceled and you're not going to arrive in time, so why go at all?

Recourse: Why go on a "futile" trip? Under most airlines' contracts of carriage (see links to these), under some circumstances, even if you're flying on a non-refundable ticket, you can tell the airline to take a hike and get your money and ancillary fees back. Delta, for example, stipulates in its contract that "in the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger's request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket." Most airlines have a "Rule 260" or similar in their contracts covering this situation. (Read more about this.)

Canceled flights

Scenario: Your flight is canceled.

Recourse: There's no government regulation that applies. Before airlines were deregulated, there was one helpful protection, however. It was called Rule 240 and you can still see it in some airlines' contracts of carriage, although it's often observed more in the breach than the practice these days. It states that your original airline will attempt to rebook you on a competing airline's next flight out if that flight will get you to your destination sooner.

But Delta's contract is typical:

Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to carry passengers and their baggage according to Delta's published schedules and the schedule reflected on the passenger's ticket, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft type, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta's published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Except as stated in this rule, Delta will have no liability for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule for any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination.

Nuff said?

Additionally, some airlines, in their contracts, state that they'll put you up in a hotel and provide meals, with stipulations. But Delta and other airlines state that there's no liability if the flight irregularity is caused by a "force majeure" (ie, act of God) event, however no matter what the cause if travel is interrupted.

Lost luggage domestic US

The scenario: An airline loses your checked bags.

Recourse: Recently revised US DOT rules require the airline to reimburse you up to $3,300 per incident but only for domestic travel. However, the airline may ask for receipts or proof of purchase for claimed items, and may depreciate the value of the suitcase and its contents. You're also entitled to a full refund, in original form of payment, for any checked bag fees.

Next: Delayed luggage, buying the wrong flight, seat selection, routing changes, schedule changes, passengers of size, European and Canadian regulations.