Delays, Strikes, and Overbooking

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Flight Delays and Cancellations

If your flight is delayed, go immediately to an airline representative to ask what the problem is and when your plane is expected to depart. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get a satisfactory answer, however. Most delays are caused by snow, ice, thunderstorms, air traffic, mechanical problems, or other factors beyond the airlines’ control, and it may be too early for the representative to respond definitively. If the delay lasts too long, other factors may come into play.

Government rules limit how long a flight crew can work, and if your flight crew is on the job beyond that time, your plane won’t be allowed to take off until the crew is replaced by another group, which must be summoned and given time to get to the airport. Or you may bump up against curfews at your destination airport; by the time you arrive, it may be too late to land there, and you may be diverted.

Knowing the source of the problem can help you decide how to respond. If the problem is at your departure or arrival airport — say, local weather or air-traffic problems — there’s not much that anyone can do to speed up your departure. If the problem is at an airport where you’re making a connection, you may want to look into the possibility of getting rerouted through another hub, even on another airline. You might also want to investigate switching to another flight if the cause of the delay is an airline-specific problem — say, the plane and crew to be used for your flight are late coming in because of a mechanical problem or bad weather in its originating city.

Rule 240 and Other Techniques

What does an airline owe you if you’re delayed? The short answer: nothing. However, if you do luck into a reservation elsewhere, ask your original carrier to endorse your ticket to your new airline at the same fare. If necessary, you may remind the agent of Rule 240. This regulation, dating from the days when the federal government controlled the airlines, requires that carriers put you on the next flight out — on a competitor and in an upgraded class, if necessary — in the event of a canceled flight or a prolonged delay; it has now been integrated, in various ways, into carriers’ contracts of carriage.

So while airlines typically prefer not to lose the revenue from your ticket to a competitor, it doesn’t hurt to ask. (If you’re traveling on an e-ticket, you will usually have to get a paper ticket from your original airline before you can go to another carrier and ask to be rerouted.) Rule 240 applies only to delays and cancellations that result from mechanical problems or other situations that are entirely within the airline’s control, not those caused by weather, labor disputes, international crises, or the like.

If you strike out, the worst thing that can happen is that you end up paying a cancellation penalty or higher fare for changing your reservations. If you are stuck for many hours, you can always ask the airline staff to reimburse you for meals or a phone call. If you are stranded overnight, try to find a sympathetic airline agent to give you vouchers for a hotel stay and a meal. Although some passengers feel that kicking up a fuss is the most effective approach, a simple “Can you help us out?” and quiet persuasion are usually the most effective approach.

If you’re close to your final destination and it seems as if you’re just not going to get out, another option is to ask the gate agent to refund the balance of your fare for that flight segment and then to use the money to rent a car. If this doesn’t work, you can always pay for the rental yourself, then write the airline and make a case for them to give you a refund covering the portion of your flight that you didn’t use.

When airlines cancel flights outright, they are not legally required to do anything for you if the cause is weather or mechanical problems. Even if a mechanical foul-up is arguably the airline’s fault, the government doesn’t want to give the airlines any financial incentive to operate the flight before it’s ready.

Bumping

Most airlines overbook flights to a certain degree to compensate for passengers who reserve but don’t show up. In fact, if you call an airline and ask a reservationist how full the flight is, you may well be told whether the flight is oversold. Despite sophisticated computer tracking systems, and even though the airlines have gotten better over time about estimating this “no-show factor” for particular flights, they still goof, and passengers are sometimes bumped or denied boarding for a flight they’ve reserved.

If that happens to you, the good news is that you’ve got far more protection than when your flight is delayed or canceled. Under rules that are enforced by the Department of Transportation, when a flight is oversold the airline must ask for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation before bumping other travelers against their will.

Voluntary Bumping

What the airlines do when they try to get passengers to give up their seats is like an auction. The airline makes its opening bid — say, cash or free travel in addition to the ticket that you’ve already paid for. Then, if you don’t jump, they’ll up the ante until they close the deal. If you are not in a big hurry to get to your destination, it might be worth it to take the money or free travel. But before accepting any offer, there are a few things you need to know:

When is the next flight on which the airline can book you a seat? Standing by in the hopes of getting on another plane that’s full (or even overbooked) may not work out for you.

If you can’t get out until the following day, will the airline pay for your meals, hotel room, necessary phone calls, and ground transportation during the interim? You don’t want to end up spending more on your overnight stay than you’re getting from the airline for your trouble.

If you’re offered a travel certificate, what restrictions apply? Is it “positive space” — that is, you’ll be able to get a reservation in advance? Or “space available,” which means you will have to stand by? Is it subject to black-out dates — meaning it can’t be used on holidays or weekends — or other restrictions?

Where can the certificate be used — in the United States only or also abroad?

Does the certificate or coupon expire?

Involuntary Bumping

If you are denied boarding against your will, the Department of Transportation requires that the airline explain your rights and tell you, in writing, how it determines who will be boarded on an oversold flight and who will not be. How much you paid is a primary consideration. The priority is generally the fare class, then the amount of fare paid (e.g., higher fare, full fare, coach, etc.). Special tickets like frequent-flier tickets or other discounted fares are further down the food chain. Airline employees go last. You may be entitled to a cash payment then and there. Much rides on the length of the delay.

If you get bumped but the airline gets you on another flight that arrives at your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled time, you aren’t entitled to anything. If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after the original arrival time (or up to four hours on international flights), the airline owes you an amount equal to the one-way fare for the journey, up to a $200 maximum. You get double the money (double your fare, up to $400) if the alternate transportation gets you there more than two hours later (four hours internationally) or if the airline doesn’t make any arrangements for you.

In all the above instances, you still get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. The airlines are simply reimbursing you for your inconvenience. If you end up having to make your arrangements, you can pursue your claim against the airline by requesting an “involuntary refund” for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. If being bumped ends up costing you more money than the carrier was willing to pay you at the airport, you can take it up later with the airline’s customer service department.

Remember that to qualify for denied boarding compensation you must have a confirmed reservation from the flight you were bumped from, indicated by the “OK” in the status box on your flight coupon (if you have a paper ticket — this information is not indicated on the passenger receipt for an e-ticket). In addition, you must have reconfirmed if required and met the airline’s official check-in deadline. If the bumping is caused by the airline’s substituting a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, it isn’t required to pay you anything. (Again, that’s to avoid giving the airlines any incentive to operate a plane that might need a repair.)

These policies do not necessarily hold true for foreign carriers not serving the United States, but if you get bumped on a flight between two foreign points, you may still be entitled to compensation. Bumping rules never apply to charter flights, or to scheduled flights on planes with 60 or fewer seats. Nor do they apply to international flights heading to the United States, or foreign airlines’ flights outside the United States, though some airlines may choose to honor them anyway.

Missing Your Flight

What rights do you have if you miss your flight? The answer is, unfortunately, none. The airline is within its rights to cancel your seat assignment and deny you boarding if you fail to show up at the gate by the official check-in deadline. If the flight has space, however, the agent may let you on. If there are long lines at security or baggage check, there is a chance that you could still miss your flight, even if you are actually at the airport at the time the airport has recommended.

To avoid this situation, watch the time closely and alert a check-in agent or customer-service representative to your plight. Many airlines will move you to the front of the line if need be. This goes whether the hold up is at the ticket counters or at security. If you arrive late for your flight because of a foul-up like a flat tire, airlines tend to make every effort to get you out as soon as possible. You will likely be charged the normal fee that applies when you change plans if it’s a nonrefundable ticket; this would be spelled out in the fare rules, which you should have learned from your travel agent or read online when you bought your ticket on the Web.

Getting on the Next Available Flight

If you have planned for this situation as you made your original reservations, you already know what your other options are. If you don’t, the first thing to do to make sure you get out on what is really the next available flight is to pick up the phone and call the airline reservations number — if there’s a flight that will work, reserve a seat. If you used a travel agent to book your trip, call the agent — or, if it’s after normal hours, use the toll-free emergency line the agent provided.

Flying Standby

Airlines no longer offer standby fares. You “stand by” not to save money but instead when your flight is canceled, when you miss your flight, or conversely, if you arrive early enough to try to get on an earlier flight. Standby, in other words, is a status, not a fare. Technically, it’s a waiting list, albeit not a democratic one. Your place on it depends on what fare you paid or your frequent flier status.

One tip: always ask how many people there are ahead of you on the list and what your chances are of clearing it. If you really need to be somewhere and can make a good case for it — family emergency, important meeting, sick child at home — let the gate agent know and hope for sympathy.

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