Your Finance Team

Know Your Rights As An Air Traveler

Flight troubles are a sure way to turn a good business trip bad. Every year, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of flights depart and arrive late. Around seven bags per 1,000 passengers are lost. The cost isn’t only to passengers’ time: just last month, Delta experienced an epic computer outage that grounded more than 2,300 flights worldwide and cost the company tens of millions of dollars. When air travel causes headaches, who is responsible? And what do they owe travelers?

The tradition of aviation law that governs air passengers’ rights stretches back to the 1920s. There’s even an international treaty in place for countries that don’t have their own air passenger regulations. (Which makes sense since navigating the lost baggage process feels like something the Geneva Convention should prohibit.) In the United States, the Department of Transportation has a robust body of regulation that establishes the rights of air passengers before, during, and after the flight. Buried in these regulations are the following three essential rights that every business traveler needs to know.

You have a lot of options the 24 hours after you find great airfare.

For a long time, airlines chose to let customers lock in airfare for a day or more without buying it. In January 2012, the Department of Transportation made it law. All carriers now have to let customers both reserve a ticket price without putting down credit card info, and cancel any purchased airfare without penalty, for 24 hours. That means you have more freedom when you find the perfect price for a trip. You can buy and cancel if you need to, or lock the price in for however long the airline holds it.

You can get repaid for lost baggage if you document it like an expense.

If the airline loses or damages your luggage, you can recover the value of each bag and its contents up to $3,300. Provided, of course, you can convince the airline it was worth that much. If you’re an incredibly forward-thinking traveler, you’ll have saved pictures of the receipts you get from buying the suitcase and the expensive items it contains. If you don’t have those receipts, do yourself a favor and at least take pictures of the bag and anything valuable inside before letting it go. You may get the money you’re owed without evidence, but that could involve a protracted negotiation — maybe even court.

You can get cash for getting bumped.

Getting moved off an overbooked flight might ruin your day, but at least you can get paid for the ordeal. Current regulations state that you’re eligible to receive the one-way cost of the ticket up to $400 if you land within an hour of your original arrival time; double the cost up to $650 if you land between one and two hours of your original time; and four times the ticket up to $1300 if you land more than four hours late. The problem is that many airlines will try to pull a fast one and give you the money in a voucher, sometimes which must be redeemed at the same airport. If that doesn’t work for you, don’t accept it. You are entitled to cash if you so choose. Just request it from the desk agent.

What you’re not entitled to.

While getting involuntarily bumped carries legal protections, there are far fewer for delays and cancellations. Airlines have their own policies for when passengers are allowed to cancel tickets and what kinds of refunds they get. When they cancel it, they have to offer you only a refund or a seat on a flight that gets you to your destination city. (This would be a good time to break out your negotiation skills.) As far as delays, there’s not much airlines have to do short of making sure you don’t suffer steerage conditions inside an idle plane. They don’t even have to report delay and cancellation data to the government outside what happens at the 29 busiest airports in the nation.

Most air travel policy falls under the category of what you’re not entitled to. U.S. law does grant you certain rights when it comes to air travel, but they’re limited. To a much greater degree, your experience overcoming air travel problems generally comes down to your negotiating skill. Even when hard-and-fast protections exist, like with baggage cost recovery, your ability to convince the airline to help you out is what will determine the duration and extent of your annoyance.


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