Holiday Airplane Travel and Consumer Rights

The holidays are here, which means travel is at its peak. People across America are dashing through the snow to their nearby airport to travel to visit family, friends and loved ones during this special time of year.

Between dealing with long lines at security and teeny tiny bags to squeeze needed liquids into carry-on luggage, air travel can be a major pain. Add in weather-related delays, overbooking, and the recent announcement that American Airlines is cancelling thousands of holiday flights – tempers can flare easily.

Many consumers linger under the impression that purchasing a plane ticket grants them certain rights. While this is certainly true, airlines have a great deal of leeway when it comes to removing troublesome, or just plain unlucky, passengers from flights. Here’s what you should know when it comes to your legal rights when flying a commercial airline.

Your Rights If Your Flight Is Overbooked

It’s a holiday nightmare: Your flight is overbooked. We’ve all seen dramatic footage of passengers forcibly removed from overbooked aircraft. Are the airlines bound to compensate you in any way if your flight is overbooked?

The short answer is yes. First of all, airlines must ask for volunteers before they begin removing passengers. The incentives to volunteer can be tempting, but do be aware that you might be giving up your right to additional compensation for extra long delays.

During the holidays, getting volunteers can be difficult, but the good news is if you do get bumped from an overbooked flight, you still have rights. The airline must rebook you on a later flight, for one. For another, they must also compensate you for your delay, up to $1,350 for if you’ll be arriving at your destination at least two hours late, or four hours late for international flights.

In addition, airlines must offer you a check, not just vouchers, if your flight is delayed. You can, of course, choose vouchers if you like, but if you prefer cold, hard cash, that is your right as well.

Delays or Cancellations

As opposed to overbooking situations, airlines are not required to compensate you for flights that are delayed or canceled. With regard to cancellation policies, the sort of compensation you receive, if any, is determined as a matter of your individual airline’s policy, so shop carefully and read the airline’s contract before purchasing your ticket.

When a flight is canceled, all airlines have to grant you is the next available seat on the next flight or a refund of the unused portion of your ticket. Some airlines stick strictly with the next available seat policy regardless of what class of ticket you bought, so if comfort is important for you, make sure your ticket specifies that you will be awarded the next available seat in the same class.

Other airlines may offer more. Some airlines, for example, specify that you may choose an alternate mode of transportation, such as rental car or train, at their expense, if the plane is grounded.

If your flight is delayed while you are still in the airport, compensation likewise varies from airline-to-airline. While not required by federal law to offer any compensation for delays, many airlines offer hotel tickets for overnight delays and meal passes for shorter flights. Even if your airline’s policy doesn’t specify what they offer in the case of delays, it doesn’t hurt to ask. You may score yourself at least a free meal or some comped drinks for your trouble.

If the plane is delayed on the tarmac, you have more rights. Federal law specifies that planes cannot be delayed longer than three hours. Bathroom facilities must be made available, as well as water, food and medical assistance, if necessary, for passengers.

Lost or Damaged Luggage

The good news is you’ve made it to your destination safely. The bad news? Your luggage did not.

If the airline loses your luggage, your first step is to file a claim with the airline the moment you realize your bags did not arrive. Be prepared to haggle, as you will need to often negotiate a fair price for compensation for your inconvenience in the case of missing luggage. If your bags are not later found, you’ll need to file a second claim with the airline.

If your luggage is lost or damaged, federal law limits the amount of compensation to which you are entitled. The current U.S. liability limit is $3,400. If you’re a fashionista or have invested a lot into gifts for family and friends you’re bringing by plane, it’s a smart idea to purchase separate flight insurance in the case your luggage is damaged or lost.

You Do Not Have the Right to Disrupt Flight Operations

Federal law is very clear: Anyone who interferes with the operations of a crew member during a flight may reap heavy civil and even criminal charges. Unruly behavior can run the gamut from being disruptive due to the influence of alcohol or drugs or something as simple as refusing to show a flight attendant your ID. Even wearing a t-shirt others find offensive can lose you your seat on the flight, or worse. Basically, if you refuse to comply with a flight member’s instructions for any reason, you leave yourself open to liability.

Likewise, showing up late for your flight can result in your losing your seat to another passenger, especially during the holiday rush. While the airline legally has to hold your seat once you’ve checked in, they are not required to hold it any longer if you fail to show up at the departure gate on time. Be sure to arrive at the airport at least two hours early, and even earlier for peak holiday travel days.

Travel smart this holiday season. Know your rights, and arrive at the airport prepared. Feel free to be festive, but make sure to monitor your alcohol intake and do not disturb other passengers or the crew. With a little planning and good judgment, your holiday travel will be as safe and hassle-free as holiday travel possibly can be!