If your flight is canceled or delayed, do you deserve a meal voucher or refund? It hasn't always been easy to find out, but the Department of Transportation is spelling it out for travelers with a new interactive dashboard.
The dashboard compares all the major domestic airlines' policies on issues such as which offer meals for delays of more than three hours and which offer to rebook flights on the same or different airlines at no additional charge. It focuses on what it calls “controllable” cancellations or delays – meaning those caused by mechanical issues, staffing shortages, or delays in cleaning, fueling, or baggage handling. Delays or cancellations caused by weather or security concerns do not count.
Here's how the dashboard works:
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What happens when a flight is canceled?
DOT rules already require airlines to offer customers a refund if their flights are canceled for any reason.
On the dashboard's launch day, American Airlines had the highest number of cancellations among domestic carriers. According to the dashboard American can: Rebook passengers on the same, or another airline at no additional cost; provide a meal or meal voucher when the cancellation results in a passenger waiting for three hours or more for a new flight; provide complimentary hotel accommodations for any passenger affected by an overnight cancellation or provide complimentary ground transportation to and from a hotel for any passenger affected by an overnight cancellation.
"Sometimes the airlines aren’t straightforward with you about the fact that you are entitled to a cash refund," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told TMZ Live days before the dashboard’s debut. "If you don’t get one, then you can come to our department and we will circle back and enforce it and make sure you do."
So far this year, airlines have canceled about 146,000 flights, or 2.6% of all flights, and nearly 1.3 million flights have been delayed, according to tracking service FlightAware. The rate of cancellations is up about one-third from the same period in 2019, before the pandemic, and the rate of delays is up nearly one-fourth.
Can I get compensation for a delayed flight?
The answer depends on the circumstances and the airline.
JetBlue, for example, offers flight credit for departures delayed by at least three hours for reasons within their control, according to their existing Customer Bill of Rights, which predates the new DOT dashboard.
"We've always done what (Buttigieg) was asking people to do," JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told USA TODAY. "We've provided hotel accommodation where we can for customers that are disrupted for controllable reasons. We've been providing, this summer, meal vouchers for delayed flights in airports ... We booked customers on American Airlines and our partner airlines where that makes sense. So for us, it was really just codifying what we've been doing."
Delta's existing Customer Commitment policies dictate free meals or meal vouchers for passengers whose flights are delayed at least three hours. Travelers can either get complimentary hotel accommodations and ground transportation or reimbursements for those unexpected expenses if the next available flight isn't until the next day.
According to a letter by Delta's CEO Edward Bastian, the airline said it has refunded over 11 million tickets – totaling $6 billion – to customers since the beginning of 2020, with one-fifth of those refunds happening in 2022.
"Delta representatives are empowered with the flexibility and discretion to issue the following forms of compensation for passenger inconvenience when individual circumstances warrant doing so: cash equivalents (e.g., gift cards), travel credits/vouchers, and/or miles for SkyMiles members," according to the airline.
Other airlines have different time limits and accommodations for controllable delays, which travelers can find and compare in the DOT's new dashboard.
"U.S. airlines are committed to offering a high level of customer service and providing a positive, safe flight experience for all passengers. Carriers welcome opportunities to simplify travel policies, clarify existing practices and increase transparency for travelers," Airlines for America, an industry trade group said in a statement. "U.S. airlines publicize their customer service plans on their individual websites, and the newly launched airline industry dashboard gives travelers another platform to access that information."
While the dashboard reflects airlines' official policies, many carriers handle delay compensation on a case-by-case basis and may provide vouchers or other benefits in some situations that are not formally covered.
If my flight is delayed, am I entitled to compensation?
This also varies from airline to airline, but in short: no. For example, the DOT acknowledges that it has not defined “significant delay”
"There are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed," the DOT states. "Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers. If your flight is experiencing a long delay, ask airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room. While some airlines offer these amenities to passengers, others do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers."
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The DOT is seeking public comment on when airlines should be required to refund passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed.
"We are also contemplating options for rulemaking that would further expand the rights of airline passengers who experience disruptions," Buttigieg wrote. "The Department asks that airlines, at a minimum, provide meal vouchers for delays of 3 hours or more and lodging accommodations for passengers who must wait overnight at an airport because of disruptions within the carrier's control."
Disruptions due to severe weather, faulty equipment, air traffic control issues and other scenarios beyond airline control are handled differently, but refunds are still required to be offered for any type of cancellation.
Contributing: Josh Rivera, USA TODAY; Associated Press; Zach Wichter, USA TODAY
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New DOT tool shows what airlines owe you for canceled flights, delays