Air travelers: Know your rights this holiday season

What you need to know before you take to the skies

By Tara Evans - Executive Producer
iStock / mikdam

ORLANDO, Fla. - The holiday travel season is upon us. Unfortunately for some, that could mean delays, bumped flights, lost baggage-- nothing anyone is really hoping to have to deal with.

The key is knowing travelers knowing their rights and knowing what they can do if any of these unpleasant situations happens.

First, let's start at the beginning, with the help of the U.S. Department of Transportation's website.

BUYING A TICKET

Of course, you want to set your travel plans up for success right from the beginning. For many, that includes making sure they get the best price. It's pretty easy to do that with so many online travel websites.

However, you'll want to make sure you understand everything that a ticket includes. Some tickets have restrictions on things including checked baggage, seat assignments, drinks and other amenities. Passengers should be sure to double-check those restrictions before heading to the airport, so they don't have any costly surprises.

Another thing to consider is optional items available for purchase, including but not limited to: advance seat selection, onboard meals/drinks, onboard Wi-Fi, priority check-in and travel insurance. Parents sending a child unaccompanied, will want want to check if there are any unaccompanied minor fees.

Once your ticket is fully purchased, regardless of whether you used money or points, the airfare cannot raise the price of that ticket. There are a few exceptions, but the airline needs to have either made a gross error in fare price, such as offering a flight for $1, or would have had to notify you and get your consent.

FREQUENT FLYER PROGRAMS

Frequent flyer programs are a great idea for people who fly a lot. There are a lot of perks, although airlines do have wide discretion to change the terms. You can usually find all the information on those restrictions in the airline's customer service plan on the airline's website.

The other thing to note is that airlines are not required to offer you the same availability and benefits as a passenger that pays for their ticket, which means there is the possibility of blackout periods, limits of frequent flyer seats on some flights, etc. The best thing to do is to review the contract associated with the rewards program so you're not surprised if you need to book a flight.

FLYING WITH A DISABILITY

Whether you have a permanent or temporary disability, you can't be discriminated against by an airline because of it. This includes physical and mental impairments.

Airlines are required to provide assistance like wheelchairs, seating accommodations and assistance with the loading and stowing of other assistive devices a passenger may have.

FLY FREE FROM DISCRIMINATION

Federal law also prohibits airlines or airline personnel from discriminating against passengers based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex or ancestry.

FAMILY SEATING

Most of the time, it's possible to book seats next to each other ahead of time.

If you're flying on an airline that has general seating, can consider options such as purchasing priority check-in. Some airlines also offer family boarding for those traveling with young children.

If for some reason you do you have preassigned seats and they're not together, arrive early to the airport. Airlines will generally do what they can to make sure you're seated with your children or that at least each child is seated next to an adult.

Check the airline's website for details on their policies.

FLIGHT DELAYS AND CANCELLATIONS

Sometimes delays and cancellations happen, however, there are often a lot of questions as to what you're entitled to in these cases.

If your flight is delayed, you're not entitled to any money or compensation under any federal law. Each airline has its own policies. You can ask for meals or a hotel room for a long delay, but not all airlines will offer that. They are, however, required to give the status updates within 30 minutes after the airline becomes aware of an issue on their website and their telephone system. 

Sometimes delays stretch longer because weather conditions worsen or an issue takes longer to fix than mechanics thought. If that happens, you can try to arrange another flight on your airline, and ask to avoid fees for changing your flight. In some cases, you can ask your airline to transfer your ticket to another airline or reimburse you for buying a ticket from another carrier, but they do not have to oblige.

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you for free on the next available flight. As with extended delays, you can ask them to book you on another carrier's flight, but they don't have to. They are also not required to provide you with hotel rooms or cab fares or anything like that, although sometimes some airlines will do so.

If you choose to cancel your trip because your flight was canceled, you are entitled to a refund for the unused ticket, even if it was nonrefundable. Many times the airlines offer a travel voucher in that case, but make sure you ask about any restrictions. However they do not have to reimburse you for other travel-associated costs like a missed cruise, lost wages, prepaid hotel rooms, etc.

TARMAC DELAYS

You've boarded the plane or just landed but can't get off. This is a dreaded tarmac delay.

For both departing and arriving flights, airlines are only allowed to keep you on board for less than three hours for domestic flights and less than four for international flights. There are exceptions for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.

Something important to note: if there's an opportunity to safely get off the plane, the airline does not have to let you back on. The flight could take off without you and it could do so while your bags are still on board.

During a tarmac delay, passengers are entitled to: working toilets, comfortable cabin temperate, medical attention if required and snacks/water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate.

Keep in mind -- these laws are U.S. laws and only apply to tarmac delays experienced at a domestic airport.

BUMPING

Sometimes passengers are bumped from their seats. This usually happens if the flight is overbooked. And although it can really be a huge inconvenience, it's not illegal. They're allowed to overbook to a certain degree to account for no-shows.

Airlines have to ask for volunteers to give up seats in exchange for compensation before they bump people. Before you agree, make sure you understand which flight you'll end up on, what amenities you may need while you wait, how long tickets or vouches are good for, etc.

If they're aren't enough volunteers, airlines will select passengers to give up their seats. They can choose based on things like how much you paid for your ticket, your check-in time or frequent flyer status. But they cannot choose you because of your race. 

They also have to make sure you understand your rights. If you're involuntarily bumped, you still may get compensation, but they don't have to unless: you had a confirmed reservation, you check-in on time, you arrived at the gate on time and they can't get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time. 

Compensation is based on the price of your ticket and the amount of time you're delayed and you must get it the same day or within 24 hours. For up to an one hour delay, no compensation. One to two hours gets you 200 percent of one-way fare up to $675 and over two hours gets you 400 percent up to $1,350 on domestic flights. For international flights, the dollar amounts are the same but it's one to four hours and then over four hours. They can give you more if they wish, but don't have to.

LOST, DELAYED OR DAMAGED BAGGAGE

Most baggage arrives on time. In the event there are issues, know that airlines are responsible for repairing or reimbursing a passenger for damaged bags and its contents when that happens under the airline's control. But not for prior damage or if it happened because of improper packing.

They do sometimes exclude certain items. For domestic flights, they don't have to compensate for them if they have excluded them in their contracts of carriage. For international flights, they do if they accepted them for travel.

For delayed baggage, file a claim with your airline as soon as possible. Airlines can't set a daily amount for expenses you incur while you wait for your bag, they're required to compensate you for reasonable, verifiable and actual incidental expenses, so keep your receipts.

Most airlines consider a bag lost if it's missing between five and fourteen days after the flight, but it can vary. They are then required to refund any baggage fees, compensate you for the contents, subject to depreciation and you may have to have receipts for valuable items you had in the bag. 

In general, for domestic flights, the maximum liability is $3,500 and for international flights, it's roughly $1,600. They can pay you more, but they don't need to.

If it's an assistive device for a passenger with a disability is lost or destroyed during domestic travel, the airline is liable for the original purchase price. It can vary for international travel.

REFUNDS

For most people, the big question comes down to what entitles you to a refund?

It's more likely you're entitled to a refund if the airline is at fault. For example, if the airline cancels the flight regardless of reason and you choose not to be rebooked. Significant delays could also entitle you to a refund, but the DOT has not specifically defined what that means. If you're downgraded, you are owed the difference in fare. If your baggage is declared lost, you should be refunded for baggage fees. And if you paid for an optional service fee you couldn't because of a cancellation or it didn't work, you should get one for that fee.

If the airline isn't at fault, you're often out of luck unless you had a fully refundable ticket you chose not to use.

If you had a bad experience or a non-refundable ticket, airlines can choose to offer you something, but they don't need to.

HOW TO FILE A CONSUMER COMPLAINT

If all else fails, click the link above to file a consumer complaint with the Department of Transportation to have it intervene on your behalf.

Copyright 2018 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.