If you are an American citizen, you probably know that you have certain rights documented in the Bill of Rights, also known as the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
You know, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
But did you also know that as an airline passenger, you also have something like a passenger’s bill of rights? These lay out your basic rights as a passenger.
These passenger protections were first issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in December 2009. They laid out rules for U.S. airlines operating domestic flights — international flights aren’t covered — including not allowing an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours “with exceptions for safety, security and air traffic control related-reasons,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The original rules also said U.S. airlines have to provide things like access to bathrooms and water on those long tarmac delays.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation expanded the rights to several areas, including lost baggage and bumping passengers for flights. But the rules don’t actually add much in the way of protection, said Kyle Potter, editor-in-chief of Thrifty Traveler.
“In general, buying a ticket is a contract,” he said. “And airlines hold a lot of the cards. It allows them to involuntarily bump you from a flight, albeit with mandatory compensation. It's also why we occasionally see travelers getting the crack down for hidden city ticketing — airlines view it as a violation of the contract.”
“Hidden city ticketing” means booking an itinerary to a final destination, but not completing the full flight. Sometimes those flights can be much cheaper than booking a flight to the city you actually want to reach.
“The biggest thing to keep in mind is that the so-called bill of rights requires airlines to fully refund flights canceled within 24 hours of booking,” Potter said. “It's one of the few truly passenger-friendly requirements.”
Here are a few of the areas covered by the updated passenger protections:
Lost Bags and Bag Fees
Airlines have to refund any fee for carrying a bag if the bag is lost. That adds to an existing protection that says airlines are required to “compensate passengers for reasonable expenses for loss, damage or delay in the carriage of passenger baggage,” according to the Department of Transportation.
Full Disclosure of Additional Fees
Airlines also have to prominently disclose all potential fees on their websites. That includes fees for baggage, meals, canceling or changing reservations, or advanced or upgraded seating.
The new rules also say airlines have to include all government taxes and fees in every advertised price. Before the new passenger protections, they didn’t have to include those government taxes and fees in the up-front fare quotation.
The updated passenger protections do not guarantee a seat on the plane — airlines can still bump passengers from oversold flights.
But the rules double the amount of money passengers are eligible to be compensated for if they are bumped from an oversold flight. Before the new rules, bumped passengers were entitled to cash compensation equal to the value of their tickets, up to $400, if the airline is able to get them to their destination within a short period of time. If it takes more than two hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights, they could claim up to $800.
Under the updated rules, bumped passengers subject to short delays can claim up to $650, while those subject to longer delays can claim up to $1,300. Inflation adjustments will be made to those compensation limits every two years.
The updated passenger protections also expanded the existing ban on lengthy tarmac delays to cover foreign airlines’ operations at U.S. airports.
It also established a four hour hard time limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines, with exceptions allowed only for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.
“Carriers must also ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are provided adequate food and water after two hours, as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment,” according to the Department of Transportation.
Additional rules in the passenger protections include requiring airlines to allow reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or canceled without penalty, for at least 24 hours after the reservation is made, if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date.
They require airlines to notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. This notification must take place in the boarding gate area, on a carrier’s telephone reservation system and on its website.
They also ban post-purchase fare increases unless they are due to government-imposed taxes or fees, and only if the passenger is notified of and agrees to the potential increase at the time of sale.