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Passenger Fly-Rights

flightsDOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly are frequently entitled to an on-the-spot payment of denied boarding compensation. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay:

  • If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $200 maximum.
  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of your fare, $400 maximum).
  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.

Like all rules, however, there are a few conditions and exceptions:

  • To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation. An "OK" in the Status box of your ticket qualifies you in this regard even if the airline can't find your reservation in the computer, as long as you didn't cancel your reservation or miss a reconfirmation deadline.
  • You must meet the airline's deadline for buying your ticket. Discount tickets must usually be purchased within a certain number of days after the reservation was made. Other tickets normally have to be picked up no later than 30 minutes before the flight.

In addition to the ticketing deadline, each airline has a check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the airport. For domestic flights most carriers have a deadline of 10 minutes before scheduled departure, but some can be an hour or longer. (Many airlines require passengers with advance seat assignments to check in 30 minutes before scheduled departure, even if they already have advance boarding passes. If you miss this deadline you may lose the specific seats you were promised, although not the reservation itself.) Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as much as three hours before scheduled departure time, due partially to security procedures. Some airlines may simply require you to be at the ticket/baggage counter by this time; most, however, require that you get all the way to the boarding area. If you miss the ticketing or check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold.

  • As noted above, no compensation is due if the airline arranges substitute transportation which is scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time.
  • If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result.
  • The rules do not apply to charter flights, or to scheduled flights operated with planes that hold 60 or fewer passengers. They don't apply to international flights inbound to the United States, although some airlines on these routes may follow them voluntarily. Also, if you are flying between two foreign cities-from Paris to Rome, for example-these rules will not apply. The European Community has a rule on bumping that occur in an EC country; ask the airline for details, or contact DOT.

The most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early. On oversold flights the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadline. Allow extra time; assume that the airport access road is backed up, the parking lot is full, and there is a long line at the check-in counter. However, if you arrive so early that your airline has another flight to your destination leaving before the one that you are booked on, either switch to the earlier flight or don't check your bag until after the first flight leaves. If you check your bag right away, it might get put on the earlier flight and remain unattended at your destination airport for hours.

Airlines may offer free transportation on future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily you have the right to insist on a check if that is your preference. Once you cash the check (or accept the free flight), you lose the right to demand more money from the airline later on. However, if being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn't work, you usually have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if you want to accept the amount of the check. You are always free to decline the check and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation. The government's denied boarding regulation spells out the airlines' minimum obligation to people they bump involuntarily. Finally, don't be a "no-show." If you are holding confirmed reservations you don't plan to use, notify the airline. If you don't, they will cancel all onward or return reservations on your trip.

Baggage Issues

Between the time you check your luggage in and the time you claim it at your destination, it may have passed through a maze of conveyor belts and baggage carts; once airborne, baggage may tumble around the cargo compartment if the plane hits rough air. In all fairness to the airlines, however, relatively few bags are damaged or lost. With some common-sense packing and other precautions, your bags will probably be among the ones that arrive safely.

You can pack to avoid problems. Some items should never be put into a bag you plan to check into the cargo compartment:

  • Small valuables: cash, credit cards, jewelry, cameras.
  • Critical items: medicine, keys, passport, tour vouchers, business papers.
  • Irreplaceable items: manuscript, heirlooms.
  • Fragile items: eyeglasses, glass containers, liquids.

Things like this should be carried on your person or packed in a carry-on bag that will fit under the seat. Remember, the only way to be sure your valuables are not damaged or lost is to keep them with you. Even if your bag is not lost, it could be delayed for a day or two. Don't put perishables in a checked bag; they may spoil if it is delayed. It is wise to put items that you will need during the first 24 hours in a carry-on bag (e.g. toiletries, a change of underwear). Check with the airline for its limits on the size, weight, or number of carry-on pieces. (There is no single federal standard.) If you are using more than one airline, check on all of them. Inquire about your flight; different airplanes can have different limits. Don't assume that the flight will have unlimited closet space for carry-on garment bags; some may have to be checked. If you plan to go shopping at your destination and bring your purchases aboard as carry-on, keep the limits in mind. If you check these purchases, however, carry the receipts separately; they may be necessary for a claim if the merchandise is lost or damaged. Don't put anything into a carry-on bag that could be considered a weapon (e.g. scissors, pen knife).

acceptable liquidsChecked baggage is also subject to limits. On most domestic and international flights, you are allowed two checked bags. Most airlines charge for baggage these days and even more extra charges if you bring more than two, or if you exceed the airline's limits on the size of the bags. On some flights between two foreign cities, your allowance may be based on the weight of the bags rather than the number of pieces. The same two bags that cost you small amounts when you started your trip could result in expensive excess-baggage charges under a weight system. Ask the airlines about the limit for every segment of your international trip before you leave home, especially if you have a stopover of a day or two or if you are changing carriers.

The bags you check should be labeled- inside and out- with your name, address and phone number. Add the name and address of a person to contact at your destination if it's practical to do so. Almost all of the bags that are misplaced by airlines do turn up sooner or later. With proper labeling, the bag and its owner can usually be reunited within a few hours. Don't over pack a bag. This puts pressure on the latches, making it easier for them to pop open. Also, don't lock your bags. The locks aren't very effective against pilferage and when going through security - it creates more of a hassle. We recommend you use cable ties - easy to take off and they can be replaced.

When packing liquids and aerosol items, check with the TSA for limits and how to pack it. If you plan to check any electrical equipment, glassware, small appliances, pottery, typewriters, musical instruments or other fragile items, they should be packed in a container specifically designed to survive rough handling preferably a factory-sealed carton or a padded hard-shell carrying case. If traveling with special items such as firearms, camera equipment, musical instruments, cultural and religious items that could be considered weapons, hunting and fishing equipment, check with the TSA special items requirements for brining these items on board. There are many items that are not permitted as carry-ons but are okay if checked in.