There's a good chance that if you were traveling last week, your plans were thrown into chaos. More than 20,000 flights were canceled due to Hurricane Sandy, and it could take weeks before air travel is back to normal.
Yet just a tiny percentage of those displaced passengers probably read their airline's contract, that determined what sort of help their airline was obliged to give them.
Called "contract of carriage", the fine print on an airline's website that details what responsibility the airline has to a passenger when flights are canceled or delayed, when luggage is lost and when there aren't enough seats for everyone on a plane.
Many people taking to the skies this holiday season don't even know that contracts of carriage exist. Although located on each airline's website, they're not always prominently displayed. On Delta Air Lines' website, for instance, you have to scroll down to the bottom of the home page and click on the link for "Legal."
In the case of a "Force Majeure" event, otherwise known as an "Act of God," few airlines assume responsibility to do anything except offer passengers refunds or traveler certificates. This situation is not likely to be remedied in the near the future. Rather than protecting consumers, many major legacy carriers have been eroding their contracts outside of the flying public's view. In January 2007, the "reciprocity rule" that allowed passengers to take their tickets over to another air carrier, interline partner or code-share partner was discarded.
Even as FlyersRights.org was losing the battle to reinstate the "reciprocity rule," airlines were adding all manner of events under the Force Majeure header including crew shortages, strikes and maintenance failures by other companies. This means that passengers can't hold airlines responsible for outsourcing maintenance work.
The federal government, pressed by FlyersRights.org, has increased passenger protections in the last two years, but it's the legal fine print in the airlines' contracts of carriage that spells out the agreement between you and the carrier. In a nutshell: The airlines promise to get you from one place to another - but they don't guarantee they'll do so on time.
Given this trend, it should come as no surprise that airlines are making it as difficult as possible to figure out what the contracts even mean. It's easy for consumers to get shorted by airlines that insert clauses into their contracts to further distance themselves from responsibility, or simply mislead you into accepting less compensation than you're entitled to receive.
All those passengers affected by Hurricane Sandy would be wise to check their contracts of carriage in order to make sure they were dealt with properly by their carrier.
Crucial airline tips for winter travelers In handling big weather events, most airlines struggle mightily with customer service.
Fly non-stop. The worst problems involve connections, so it's important to take non-stop flights whenever possible. If you do have to make a connection, try to route through a Southern city, where snowstorms and de-icing delays will be less likely.
Always allow at least two to three hours for flight connections.
Check the weather in your connecting city, not just the arrival and departure city. If you're stranded at your connection, you'll be scrambling for a place to stay with or without your luggage. Airlines promise to get you on the next available flight, not the next flight. That could be several days later on a sold-out holiday weekend.
Go early. The earlier in the day you fly, the better your chance of getting rebooked the same day after a missed connection. It will also put you ahead of stranded passengers who arrive later.
Rebook immediately. As soon as your flight is delayed or canceled, get on the phone and rebook your flight instead of waiting at the ticket counter. If your rebooking is delayed, call or ask your travel agent to find a seat on another carrier, and then ask your original carrier to endorse your ticket to the new airline. Airlines are not required to do this but often do. Learn more at www.dot.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights.
Ship bags. A few days before your flight, ship suitcases or holiday gifts to your destination by a documented express service. It's preferable to losing bags because of re-routed flights and sometimes cheaper than paying airline overweight bag fees.
Know your rights and speak up. If you determine that you are entitled to a refund or other compensation for a delay or cancellation, request it specifically. Some airlines are not obliged to give a refund unless asked.
Pay attention to what other airlines are doing. If you're told weather is causing your cancellation or delay, make sure other carriers aren't flying to the same destination. Sometimes airlines cancel flights because they are under-booked. If you suspect that to be the case, ask for the appropriate compensation.
If you're still waiting to get on that plane, here are five things you need to know
Keep up with airline updates on Twitter. Most major domestic carriers keep their Twitter handles updated with relevant flight and airport information. Facebook is often another good source.
If you had to cancel your nonrefundable hotel room due to a storm, you might be able to get a refund, despite the property's standard cancellation policy. Be sure to call yours and ask.
Need a place to stay? Call your hotel to see if it's offering any deals for travelers after a major storm. For example, Kimpton Hotels in New York City and Boston are offering 20 percent off room rates for those who book with promo code SANDY.
Most airlines are extending their flight-change policies through this week. Check your airline website to see if any updates have been made.
Know your rights. If you're stranded, save your receipts for your hotel room and transportation, and check your airline's contract of carriage to see if you're eligible for assistance.
FlyersRights Hall of Shame Recent Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Violators, Fined by the DOT:
This order concerns I-Jet's violations of certain practices by ticket agents that constitute unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition. This order assesses a compromise civil penalty of $50,000.
Qantas Fined for Failing to Disclose Baggage Fees.
DOT assessed a civil penalty of $100,000 against Qantas for violating DOT's new rule requiring carriers and ticket agents to inform consumers that they may have to pay baggage fees. British Airways
This order concerns advertisements published by the carrier that violate the Department's full-fare advertising requirements and assesses the carrier a compromise civil penalty of $250,000.
DOT fined Aeroflot for violating airline passenger protection rules.
Aeroflot violated the rule on full-fare advertising. DOT requires all advertisements that include airfares to state the entire price to be paid by the consumer. The airline was assessed a civil penalty of $60,000. Pakistan International Airlines
DOT said that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) violated federal rules by not providing passengers an opportunity to leave the plane when it was delayed on the tarmac at Washington Dulles Airport for more than four hours. DOT fined PIA $150,000.
This consent order results from Air France's policy to refuse reimbursement for certain items of luggage lost in international transit to or from the United States. It assesses the carrier a compromise civil penalty of $100,000.
This consent order concerns violations of certain consumer protection provisions by TEM Enterprises d/b/a Xtra Airways, a direct air carrier for a number of Public Charter programs filed by Southern Sky Air & Tours, d/b/a Myrtle Beach Direct Air & Tours (Direct Air). It assesses the carrier a compromise civil penalty of $300,000.
Outstanding Volunteer of the Month!
Dave Baniewicz has been a huge help manning FlyersRights' hotline. He's jumped right in without a lot of instruction and now takes calls every other week.
Dave hails from the SW suburbs of Chicago and worked in general construction as a accountant project manager for the last 17 years. Dave's also a service director for the NRHS the National Railroad Historical Society. He flies 40 or more times a year for personal and sometimes work. Says he applauds FlyersRights for its work on the tarmac rule, the body scanners and trying to get some dignity back in flying.
We thank Dave for his hard work, dedication and professionalism as well as his contributions to the successof the organization.
Great FlyersRights Partnerships
Flybag™ - the must-have TSA-compliant toiletry kit for the efficient traveler. From now until the end of the year, when you purchase a Flybag™ at regular price ($16) and enter code ISTILLFLY, you will receive one dollar off AND another dollar will be donated to FlyersRights.org. For more info, visit Flybags.com.
Kate's Final Word As a grassroots organization, it is you, our members, who keep us afloat. I know it's a lot to ask, but if we are to keep up the good fight, we need your help. We've made it easy to donate any amount by providing a safe and secure online option at flyersrights.org/donate.
We are commited to solutions for promoting airline passenger policies that forward first and foremost the safety of all passengers while not imposing unrealistic economic burdens that adversely affect airline profitability or create exhorbitant ticket price increases.
All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:
Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.
Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.
Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.
Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.
Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.
Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.
Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.
The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.
Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.
Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.
Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.