Here Is What Airlines Must Do If Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed
Last updated May 25, 2023
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More Americans are expected to fly this summer than any time since the pandemic started, which raises concerns about the system’s ability to handle the volume of passengers—especially after last summer’s meltdown. So, it’s important for you to know your rights when things go wrong.
The good news: Airlines say they’ve made improvements to staffing and equipment. Several major carriers have agreed to a request by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to schedule fewer flights with bigger planes at some busy airports, such as JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and Washington National, according to the New York Times.
Also, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a news release this week saying it is prepared to screen high volumes of summer passengers at airport security checkpoints.
Despite these improvements, with so many full flights a computer glitch or bad weather could still cripple air travel nationwide. As travel columnist Christopher Elliott wrote recently: “Another airline service meltdown is coming. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ it will happen.”
In the U.S., if your flight is delayed or canceled, or if your baggage gets lost or damaged, unfortunately airlines aren’t required to do much for you. But it’s important to know your rights—however limited—if an airline strands you, delays you for hours, or loses your stuff.
Checking on What Airlines Promise to Do When Flights Are Canceled or Delayed
The Department of Transportation’s Airline Customer Service Dashboard tracks what the 10 major U.S. airlines (and their regional operating partners) say they will do for passengers—if possible—when a delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault. This would include issues such as maintenance, equipment, or crew problems. Disruptions resulting from bad weather or air traffic control are not considered to be the airline’s responsibility.
A few highlights of what customers can expect when a delay or cancellation is the airline’s fault:
- All 10 airlines promise to rebook passengers at no cost on other flights they operate.
- Some will try to rebook stranded passengers with partner airlines at no additional cost.
- Most will give passengers meals or meal vouchers—not just snacks—when they’ve waited three hours or more for a new flight.
- Most will provide complimentary hotel accommodations for passengers affected by an overnight cancellation or delay.
Note that these policies apply to domestic flights only. Airlines often have separate policies and operate under different rules for international flights. Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom especially have far more consumer-friendly regulations that spell out how airlines must compensate you or accommodate you if your flight is delayed or canceled.
When Are Refunds Required?
Here’s a DOT rule every flier should know about: If your flight is canceled for any reason—weather, mechanical problems, air-traffic control, staffing issues, computer glitches, volcanic eruptions, whatever—the airline is required by federal regulation to provide a full refund. Refunds are also required when there are significant schedule changes to previously booked itineraries.
While your airline will try to rebook you for free on another one of its flights, there might not be seats available for days during peak travel times.
If you do not accept the airline’s proposed new itinerary, you are legally entitled to a full refund for the unused portion of your ticket—even if you booked a “nonrefundable” fare. The airline must also refund any fees you prepaid, such as for baggage or seat assignment.
Airlines can offer other enticements, such as miles or travel vouchers, but you don’t have to accept that. You are entitled to get your money back.
Bill McGee, a senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project, said many travelers don’t know their rights. So, if a flight is canceled and the airline offers them a voucher or credit, they mistakenly assume it’s better than nothing.
“When it comes to refunds, we have ample evidence that airlines are not being completely truthful with passengers,” McGee told Checkbook. “If the airline says you have a choice between cash or a voucher or miles, then that’s fine, make your own choice. But passengers should not be told you’re getting a credit, without being offered the cash first.”
“A cash refund is always a smart move because you may have to jump through hoops to use that travel voucher,” said Charlie Leocha, president and founder of Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group. “Travel vouchers can expire, be subject to restrictions, and have blackout dates. And remember, that voucher can only be used with that airline. What if you want to fly another airline next time?”
What If a Cancellation or Delay Costs Me Money?
A cancellation or delay can be costly in many ways. You may need to buy a more expensive ticket on another airline to make it to a wedding or business meeting on time. You could miss your cruise ship or lose nights for a prepaid vacation at a hotel or resort.
Don’t expect to get reimbursed for any monetary losses resulting from a canceled or delayed flight. The airlines are not required to provide compensation in these situations—and probably won’t. Many travel insurance policies provide protection against these types of losses; click here for our advice on when and why to consider these plans.
What Happens If an Airline Loses or Damages My Bag?
Airlines are required to provide compensation (subject to depreciation and liability limits) and to refund any baggage fees. But, like delays, each airline gets to set its own policy defining when a bag is officially lost. Typically, it’s between five and 14 days after the flight.
Domestic airlines often exclude liability for perishable and fragile items, as well as cash, electronics, and jewelry. If you must put valuables in your checked luggage (and it’s best avoided) consider buying additional insurance.
Airlines must also compensate passengers for “reasonable, verifiable, and actual incidental expenses” that were incurred while their bags are delayed, up to the $3,800 per passenger liability limit. You may be required to produce receipts or other proof for valuable items.
DOT Responds to Complaints
Last summer, millions of airline passengers had their travel plans disrupted or ruined by an airline industry that was not prepared to deal with increased demand. On the worst days, up to seven percent of all domestic flights were canceled, according to FlightAware.
In August 2022, the DOT responded to the “flood of air travel service complaints” about refund problems with a proposed rule that would, according to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, “protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines.”
The rule would define the terms “cancel” and “significant change” that are used in the current DOT rules to trigger refunds but have been inconsistently interpreted by the airlines.
The DOT proposes that “significant changes” to a flight would mean:
- Changes that affect the departure and/or arrival times by three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight.
- Changes to the departure or arrival airport.
- Changes that increase the number of connections in the itinerary.
- Changes to the type of aircraft flown if it causes a significant downgrade in the air travel experience or amenities available onboard the flight.
Under the proposal, a “canceled” flight would mean a flight that was published in a carrier’s computer reservation system at the time the ticket was sold but didn’t take off as scheduled.
“It’s not a new protection, but it is one that allows consumers to better understand their rights and for the airlines to play fewer games, said John Breyault, a vice president at the National Consumers League and a member of DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. “Regardless which airline you fly, they’d need to play by the same rules.”
Earlier this month, DOT announced plans to start the rulemaking process with a goal of requiring airlines to provide compensation and cover expenses for amenities such as meals, hotels, and rebooking when airlines are responsible for stranding passengers.
“When an airline causes a flight cancellation or delay, passengers should not foot the bill,” Buttigieg said “This rule would, for the first time in U.S. history, propose to require airlines to compensate passengers and cover expenses such as meals, hotels, and rebooking in cases where the airline has caused a cancellation or significant delay.”
Should Congress Give the States Authority to Sue the Airlines?
Frustrated by the DOT’s slow response to consumer complaints, the National Association of Attorneys General has asked Congress for authority to enforce state and federal consumer protections for airline travelers. Currently, state authorities cannot sue an airline, even when victims are in their state. Federal law gives the DOT sole responsibility for doing that.
The letter, signed by 38 attorneys general (including both Republicans and Democrats) and sent in August of 2022, calls on Congress to give them the authority to hold airlines accountable for violations of state and federal consumer protection laws—and to consider shifting the authority for federal investigations of passenger complaints from DOT to an agency “more primarily focused on consumer protection, such as the U.S. Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission.”
“Over the past couple of years, our offices have received thousands of complaints from outraged airline passengers about airline customer service—including about systematic failures to provide required credits to those who lost travel opportunities during the pandemic,” the attorneys general wrote. “[The] mistreatment of airline consumers is a bipartisan issue—one that requires immediate action from federal lawmakers.”
More from Checkbook:
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- New Proposed Rule Would Require Airlines to Disclose the ‘True Cost’ of Tickets, Including Fees
- DOT Fines 6 Airlines and Orders Them to Refund $600 Million to Stranded Passengers
- Should You Buy Travel Insurance?
- 60 Travel Booking Tips
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Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He has been protecting consumers for more than 40 years, having covered the consumer beat for CBS News, The Today Show, and NBCNews.com. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.