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If it hasn't happened to you yet, it will. As the number of air travelers grows, so does the chance you may find yourself left behind. A delayed or canceled flight can wreak havoc on a planned excursion. But knowing your passenger rights can go along way to dealing with air travel pitfalls.

Get the Rules

When you buy an airline ticket you have entered into a contract with the airline you are flying. As with any contract, you have a right to a copy of the rules. With international flights the contract is called "tariff rules."

While some of these conditions are printed on your ticket, many are not. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) states that all flyers must be furnished with this information. Get the rules and learn the ones concerning three air travel concerns: safety, lost and mishandled luggage and bumping compensation. You can get the conditions or rules from ticket agents or an airline’s customer service department.

Do the Bump

The term "bumped" means that even with a confirmed reservation and ticket, there is no room on the flight for you. This is usually because most airlines overbook their flights. If all the passengers show up, the airline’s first move will be to ask for volunteers to take another flight. The incentive is usually monetary vouchers for future flights. Before volunteering, consider several issues.

 *Find out when you will get a confirmed seat on a flight to your destination.

 *Find out the restrictions on your voucher.

 *See what added perks are included. Meals, phone calls, or hotel rooms for long delays may be included.

If the airline cannot get enough volunteers they will resort to Involuntary Bumping. At this point, they will take some flyers off the flight. Usually, the toss of the coin falls to the last couple of flyers that checked in, or flyers that do not have assigned seats or did not reconfirm a flight.

If this happens to you, you could be eligible to receive compensation for missing your flight. To qualify, there are several conditions that must be met.

 *You must have a confirmed reservation that fits the deadline for purchase.

 *The deadline for check in has been met. (Ask your airline what their deadline is)

Where’s my Free Ticket?

The Department of Transportation has some minimum amounts and guidelines for compensation of passengers who are bumped from US domestic flights. If your airline can get you to your destination within one hour of your original time, no compensation is due. If the airline gets you on a plane in 1 or 2 hours, it must compensate you the cost of a one-way fare, up to $200. If it takes longer than 2 hours, you are entitled to double the one-way fare, up to $400. On international flights the airline has up to 4 hours to get you on a flight. Overseas amounts are determined by the tariff rules.

The Flight’s Been Cancelled?!?!

Delayed or canceled flights are the traveler’s nightmare. Airlines reserve the right to cancel or delay flights at the last minute. They also are not required to provide meals, phone calls, or hotel rooms. If the delay or cancellation occurs due to weather, they most likely will not provide anything at all to ease your delay. Mechanical problems also do not require compensation, but the airline is most likely to do something. Involuntary Rerouting is the most likely action an airline will take. This simply means they will try to get you on the next available flight or on a different airline. In such event, it is better to call the airline’s reservations system and rebook that way.

Where’s My Luggage?

A ripped-open bag with shredded clothes scattered on the baggage claim carousel is a sorry sight. But it’s even worse when it is yours. At least your bag has arrived! What if it never does? Sadly, the compensation is regulated and not in your favor.

Though not foolproof, here are a few things you can do to prevent your bags ending up in some unclaimed luggage room in Timbuktu:

 *Check the luggage tags the agent puts on your bag.

 *Remove all past trip tags.

 *Place identification tags within your bags.

 *Place colored markings on your bags.

Pack everything you absolutely need in carry-on bags.

 *Leave anything you would hate to lose at home.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Okay, you have had to spend big dollars for a hotel or a missed vacation due to an airline problem! Where do you go and how do you work out some satisfaction? Here is a big tip, always join an airline’s Frequent Flyer’s Program -- before flying. It costs nothing, and even if you may not fly the airline ever again, join. Airlines are very competitive when it comes to customers; your intention to become a frequent customer will tip the satisfaction in your favor.

There are several steps to making a complaint.

 *Document the situation as it happens. Keep flight numbers, names of employees, other customers and any other details that will make your case.

 *Try to settle you situation first at the airport. There is usually a supervisor on hand to deal with trouble situations. In a very calm manner explain that you are a frequent flyer with the airline and then present your complaint backed up with details. Do not use exaggeration and make sure to state what you think is fair compensation.

 *If the situation is not settled to your satisfaction, send a letter of complaint to the director of consumer affairs at the airline. Include copies of receipts, frequent flyer number, details, and acceptable compensation. Stay polite and business-like. If possible use business stationary (Business travelers are an airline’s bread and butter). Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested.

 *Send a copy of the letter and documentation to the Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Division. They can provide information to better your case.

If you have problems with an overseas airline, your options are somewhat more limited. Try to handle it in the airport. If you can’t, contact the airline’s US office when you return and send a letter as above.

Be persistent and resend another letter if you have not had a response in 6 weeks. If all else fails, there are legal remedies, but make sure your cause is worth it. Last but not least, take heart. The situation, at least domestically, is being monitored in Congress.


Have a complaint?

Department of Transportation
Aviation Consumer Division

400 Seventh St. SW, Room 4107
Washington, DC, 20590
Tel: 202-366-2220

Aviation Consumer Action Project
Box 19029
Washington, DC, 20036
Tel: 202-638-4000


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