A tiny percentage of the people unable to board the 19,000+ flights canceled or rescheduled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy likely read the contract that is now determining what sort of help their airline is obliged to give them. Called "Contracts of Carriage," the legal agreements airlines make with their passengers are involved, arcane and designed to limit corporate liability.
In the case of a "Force Majeure" event, otherwise known as an "Act of God," few airlines assume responsibility to do anything but offer passengers refunds or traveler certificates. This means that many of the passengers inconvenienced by the storm are probably up an unmentionable creek and likely to stay there for some time.
Unfortunately, this situation is unlikely to be remedied in the near the future. Rather than protecting consumers, many major legacy carriers have been eroding their contracts outside of the flying public's view. In January 2007, the "reciprocity rule" that allowed passengers to take their tickets over to another air carrier, interline partner or code share partner of an airline in order to get face value honored was discarded. To make matters worse, even as FlyersRights.org was losing the battle to reinstate the "reciprocity rule," airlines were adding all manner of events under the Force Majeure header including crew shortages, strikes and maintenance failures by other companies. This means that passengers can't hold airlines responsible for outsourcing maintenance work.
Given this trend, it should come as no surprise that airlines also don't make it easy to figure out what the contracts even mean. It is easy for consumers to get shorted by airlines that either introduce clauses into their contracts to further distance themselves from responsibility for their passengers or simply mislead their clients into accepting less compensation than they are actually entitled to receive.
All those affected by Hurricane Sandy would be wise to check their contracts of carriage in order to make sure they were dealt with properly by their carrier.
In order to help, a brief guide to the rules major carriers play by is below.
U.S. Airways reserves the right to cancel, divert, postpone or delay any flight in the case of a force majeure event <a href="http://www.usairways.com/en-US/aboutus/customersfirst/contractofcarriage.html">without prior notice or liability</a>. The airline also reserves the right to determine when their decisions to cancel or reschedule flights can be made without liability. In the case of such an event, U.S. Airways can choose to refund the price of ticket or give the stranded traveler a certificate. The airline is obligated to give its passengers up to date information.
American Airlines reserves the right to cancel, divert or delay any flight without prior notice in the case of a force majeure event as well as the right to determine whether or not the airline has any liability beyond its stated obligation to give stranded passengers an involuntary refund. The airline defines a force mejeure event <a href="http://www.aa.com/i18n/customerService/customerCommitment/conditionsOfCarriage.jsp">not only in terms of weather and acts of god</a>, but also in terms of anything that wasn't "predicted by American."
In the case of a delay over 90 minutes or a cancellation,<a href="http://www.delta.com/legal/contract_of_carriage/index.jsp"> Delta assumes responsibility for refunding unused tickets</a> and for negotiating further travel on different airlines or the ground, but in the aftermath of a force majeure event, Delta is not obligated to feed or shelter passengers as it typically would. The airline does commit, however, to providing amenities in order to keep customers with special needs (children, the infirm, the elderly) safe.
United <a href="http://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/contract.aspx">guarantees to refund unused portions of tickets</a> or re-book travelers in the wake of an event. The airline can also refunds travelers with a certificate. It has no further obligations to the flyer.
Southwest includes <a href="http://www.southwest.com/assets/pdfs/corporate-commitments/contract-of-carriage.pdf">fog and haze in the Force Majeure category </a>along with "mechanical difficulties by entities other than the carrier," which presumably includes errors by entities working for the carrier.
Virgin America reserves the right to cancel, divert or delay any flight without prior notice in the case of a force majeure event. Like other airlines, it also reserves the right to determine whether or not the airline has any liability beyond its responsibility to give stranded passengers an involuntary refund. The airline also commits to <a href="http://www.virginamerica.com/html/contract-of-carriage.pdf">notifying guests within a 30-minute window before a delay or cancellation</a>, providing an accurate and honest explanation or circumstances and stationing an employee at the gate to help make alternative arrangements.
JetBlue offers full refunds and reaccommoddation to subsequent flights to all passengers whose flights are canceled. The airline gives $50 in the case of most non-force majeure events.<a href="http://www.jetblue.com/p/jetblue_coc.pdf"> The refund is issued as the applicable one way fair to the intended destination.</a>
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