Travelers caught in a massive airline delay – such as those systemic delays caused by grounding of an entire fleet of aircraft – have very few specific, legally defined “rights.” Instead, what you get is what the airline is willing to give you, or if you pursue it, what you can recover in court.
That’s the short answer to the questions I’ve heard from many of you in recent days. It’s probably not what you wanted to hear, but it’s the case. The only upside is that, in the huge recent shutdowns, the airlines involved tended to be generous.
Fortunately, systemic delays don’t happen often. But whether due to fleetwide mechanical problems or an extended spell of extremely bad weather, they have a huge impact.
No specific governmental rules apply to airline delays, as they do to overbooking. Instead, the only clear rights you have devolve from ordinary contract requirements. Airline contractual promises are put forth in their “conditions of carriage.”
Although specific promises vary from airline to airline, you generally have two sure options and two conditional ones:
• Sure option 1: complete refund of your ticket or the unused portion of your ticket.
• Sure option 2: re-accommodation on your original airline’s next available flight.
• Conditional option 1: Transfer to another airline that can get you to your destination earlier than your original airline can. For the most part, transfer is voluntary with the airlines involved; specific promises vary from line to line, and transfers are available only among lines with mutual “interline” agreements to honor each other’s tickets.
• Conditional option 2: overnight accommodations, meals and such, as necessary, if a delay catches you at a connecting hub. If your delay is at your home airport or your trip destination, the airline will probably not offer those amenities – and it definitely will not if the delay is due to weather.
These options can work pretty well when just a few isolated flights are delayed. But when the delay is systemic – as it was for several carriers – airlines quickly become overwhelmed. With load factors hovering over 80 percent, your original airline could take several days to find a replacement seat. And if your delay occurs on a trip to or from an airport that’s a big “hub” for your airline, other lines may have precious few seats to accommodate you.
Given those realities, what should you do when faced with a widespread, systemic delay? Here are my suggestions.
• If the delay occurs at your home airport – and if at all feasible – postpone your entire trip for at least two weeks, better a month. At best, it can take an airline more than a week to return to normal after a really serious systemic delay. Get your airline to rebook you at your original fare, but far enough in the future so that you can arrange a convenient schedule.
• If you have to keep going – or get home – do as much as you can to solve your own problem. Call your travel agent; get online, use your cell phone; try to locate the seat or seats you need. Chances are your original airline’s agent will be happy to be presented with a solution rather than just another problem.
• If the distance to your destination is under 500 miles or so, forget about flying. Get a refund, and drive your car.
• If your delay is at a big line’s major hub, consider driving to the nearest hub for some other big line. If you’re stuck on American at Dallas-Fort Worth, for example, consider driving your own car or a rental to Houston for a flight on Continental. If you’re stuck in Charlotte, drive to Atlanta. Of course, that idea won’t work very well in Phoenix or Salt Lake City.
Keep in mind that the agents you’re dealing with at the airport are not personally responsible for the delay and inconvenience. Try to keep your cool and accept a reasonable solution when offered.