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What are your rights as an airline passenger in the United States?

Bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues can all factor into your travel plans being halted. This is what you are entitled to when it happens.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Editor's Note: The video above is from earlier in July 2021.

If you choose to travel by air, then you know the whirlwind of a disaster it can be when your travel plans are met with unexpected challenges in the airport.

As people are beginning to become more comfortable with traveling during this pandemic time, it would only make sense that the demand to fly has skyrocketed after the world's shutdown in 2020.

Most recently, NASDAQ says Southwest Airlines canceled around 500 flights and delayed 1,300 more on July 13 after trouble with with a weather information provider forced a ground stop.

The United States Department of Transportation spells out regulations and passenger rights concerning air travel.

Delayed and canceled flights

Airlines are not technically required to compensate you if your domestic flight is delayed or canceled.

For intentional flights that are canceled or delayed, you may be entitled to reimbursement under Article 19 of the Montreal Convention.

"If the claim is denied, you may pursue the matter in court if you believe that the carrier did not take all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damages caused by the delay," the DOT explains on its website.

Planes stopped on the tarmac

The government prohibits most United States airlines from letting domestic flights sit on the tarmac for more than three hours with two exceptions.

  1. If the pilot identifies a security or safety concern preventing the plane from moving or letting the passengers off
  2. If Air Traffic Control determines taxiing to the gate would significantly disrupt other operations at the airport

For international and domestic flights, the DOT says U.S.-based airlines must offer passengers food and water "no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins." Lavatories must be working, allowing passengers to use them. And, medical attention must be available upon request.

Overbooked flights

Overbooking happens when an airline sells more tickets to a flight than it has seats for. This method is not illegal, and it helps the airline compensate for any possible "no-shows". Unfortunately, this may cause you to get "bumped" off of your flight. It can happen both voluntarily and involuntarily. 

If you are ever "bumped," the law says you have the right to be compensated on domestic trips and to know the amount of the compensation you're owed.

When you are bumped involuntarily, the airline is required to give a written statement that explains how it decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't.

If you get bumped involuntarily, but the airline arranges alternative transportation getting you to your destination within an hour of your scheduled arrival time, you aren't guaranteed any money. You're entitled to compensation if it takes longer.

"You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight," the DOT writes. "If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an 'involuntary refund' for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience."

The government says if you paid optional fees – like ones to select a specific seat  – and you don't get the requested services on your substitute flight, the airline must refund the extra payments to you.

Damaged and lost baggage

This is tricky. If your luggage is damaged, airlines often pay for repairs or negotiate settlements. But, they may decline to cover damages if items happened to be fragile or the luggage wasn't packed well. They also might not offer you compensation if there isn't any evidence of damage on the outside of the suitcase.

However, airlines can absolutely be held liable for damage caused by negligence, which might be obvious if a package or suitcase has lots of exterior damage.

Airlines are liable to pay up to their liability limits if your luggage is seriously delayed. You'll want to try to handle the problem with airport staff. If they can't help you, call the carrier's baggage claims office or customer care office when you return home. You'll want to save all your travel documents.

If your luggage is permanently lost, you should submit a claim. It often takes between four weeks and three months for airlines to cough up a settlement in those cases. You'll have to estimate the value of your lost luggage and may be asked for receipts or documents to back up your assertions during negotiations with the airline.

"When airlines tender a settlement, they may offer you the option of free tickets on future flights in a higher amount than the cash payment," the DOT writes. "Ask about all restrictions on these tickets, such as 'blackout' periods."

Passengers with disabilities

The Air Carrier Access Act and the DOT have procedures in place to ensure passengers with disabilities can enjoy flights. From making air travel accessible for travelers with hearing or visual impairments, to making sure employees are trained, provisions are laid out in this 17-page federal document.

Complaining to the airline

Unfortunately, flights don't always go perfectly and a situation may come up when you have to file a complaint, and that's completely okay.  

  • Information on how to file a complaint must be given to you by the carrier.
  • A written complaint to the airline must be acknowledged within 30 days of it being sent. 
  • A "substantive" response must be sent within 60 days of them receiving it.  

Click here for an even fuller list of passenger rights from the DOT.

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