Compensation for air delays? Maybe, but…


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You probably saw something about the announcement last week by the Department of Transportation (DoT) that is about to launch a new rulemaking requiring airlines to provide compensation to passengers and cover their costs when their flights are delayed or canceled. Many hailed the announcement as a big gain for consumers; the more cynical said not to hold your breath until you see any positive results. As is usual in these cases, you have to look at the details to see exactly what’s involved — and what’s realistically likely to happen.

Currently, when an airline cancels a flight or delays it substantially for a reason beyond the airline’s control, the only recourse you have is either a full refund or whatever else the airline promises in its contract of carriage — the legally binding agreement you accept when you buy a ticket. The only applicable federal rule is that each airline must specify what it owes you — other than a refund, there are no specifics — in an accessible format. There are no definitions, such as what constitutes a “delay;” just that the airline must tell you.

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Currently, all U.S. airlines give you a refund if you want it, or promise to book you on their own next flight with an available seat at no extra cost. That commitment applies no matter what causes the cancellation or delay — whether it’s the airline’s fault or a force majeure event outside airline control. All the contracts I’ve seen recently cover about the same ground. Presumably, new rules would not change this.

Travelers generally have some additional recourse when a delay or cancellation is an airline’s fault or subject to airline control. This is a standard of “care.” Here again, current rules require only that airlines tell you what’s in their contracts of carriage, not what has to be in those contracts. And current airline contracts vary significantly. Some offer only vaguely-worded offers of help or assistance; others go into detail about paying for a hotel if an overnight delay exceeds a certain number of hours or the circumstances in which each line agrees to transfer you to another line. Presumably, new DoT rulemaking would consider minimum standards of care required of all U.S. airlines.

A related issue is compensation — cash payment beyond provision of care to offset traveler inconvenience and expense. Currently, in addition to rebooking and other assistance, the only compensation airlines are legally required is to travelers “bumped” due to oversale. Only Alaska and JetBlue presently offer compensation — as credit, not cash — to travelers canceled or delayed for reasons other than oversale bumping. Compensation would seem to be a hot issue in new rulemaking.

For now, the US requires neither care nor compensation in cases of delays and cancellations due to factors outside an airline’s control — weather, force majeure, and such. Advocates for stronger traveler rights point to the EU rules that require care even in many delays that are not under an airline’s control and compensation in some. Presumably, DoT will consider these possibilities in its rulemaking.

But whatever happens, it will happen slowly. So far, DoT has said no more than it intends to do a rulemaking. Before actually issuing any rules, it must post public notice and open a formal document for comments, after which it must decide which rules to propose, which, again, it must post for public comment before issuing any actual rules. Without waiting for any details, the airlines, through their international trade association IATA, have already attacked the proposal, and they will vigorously lobby against anything really good for their customers. Several consumer advocates I know are predicting that actual new rules, if any, are at least four years away — which, means inter alia, under a new administration. As I said, don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, DoT has already mounted one useful consumer benefit: A “dashboard” summarizing key contract promises of the eight largest US airlines. Check it out at

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at

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