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Security & Risk Management

Booking a flight? Know your rights

Despite massive changes in the airline industry, travelers still have certain rights when their flights are rebooked or cancelled

[caption id="attachment_25506" align="alignright" width="235"]Ehsan Zaffar Ehsan Zaffar[/caption]

The Author

Ehsan Zaffar (@Ezaffar) is a Senior Policy Advisor at the US Department of Homeland Security. He obtained his JD from Pepperdine University School of Law in Los Angeles and serves as adjunct faculty at George Mason University in Washington, DC, where he teaches courses on national security, surveillance and privacy. He is currently writing a textbook on national security and civil liberties to be published with Elsevier fall 2014.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Homeland Security or the US government. They are solely the views of the author in his personal capacity.

Zaffar can be reached at ezaffar@gmu.edu.[divider]

Following 9/11, security measures have increased at all US ports of entry, especially airports. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 has given birth to new agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), created to strengthen security, standardize procedures and facilitate air travel.

Despite the need for these procedures, many of these security activities have resulted in interminable delays for many travelers. The airline industry has simultaneously undergone significant changes, in both infrastructure and size after 9/11, affecting both their ability to service customers, and fly reliably and consistently.

Faced with these uncertainties this summer travel season, travelers are naturally wondering what rights they have when booking a flight and what avenues of redress they have when their flight is delayed or cancelled by the airline.

This article examines the rights travelers have during the flight booking and boarding process. A subsequent article will look at the rights of travelers at airport security checkpoints.

Pre-flight: booking and reservations

Like most businesses, airlines have considerable discretion in how they respond to problems. This doesn't mean travelers don't have certain rights as passengers. Rather, demands for compensation from delays and other inconveniences are likely to be the subject of negotiation. For this reason, the consumer should start by seeking remedies from the airline itself.

If that fails, administrative remedies can be obtained through the Department of Transportation (DOT):

Depending on the claim, the DOT may undertake an independent investigation or administrative action, or counsel the traveler to seek litigation or settlement. In certain cases where disputes commonly arise, such as cancellations of reservations, the rights of travelers are more clear-cut.

For instance, paying for a reservation with a credit card offers certain protections under federal credit laws. When a refund is due under the contract of carriage between a traveler and the airline, the airline must forward the refund within seven days. Furthermore, the credit card company is normally obliged to represent travelers in informal disputes with an airline.

If the traveler has trouble getting a refund on a refundable fare or has a non-refundable fare and the airline cancels the flight, the traveler should report the dispute in writing to the credit card company. If the dispute is reported within 60 days, in most cases, the credit card company is obliged to credit the account for a refund, even if the airline does not.

Each airline has its own policies regarding delays and cancellations, and the rights of passengers often depend on the class (First, Economy) and grade (Economy-K, Economy-Y) of the ticket purchased. In the event of a delay, most airlines will automatically rebook travelers on the next available flight. But each airline is different, and travelers generally don't have the right to demand a rebooking.

Finally, an airline is also not required by law or policy to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or cancelled. Compensation is required (with few exceptions) if a passenger is "bumped" or removed from an oversold flight. When passengers are involuntarily "bumped," the Department of Transportation requires that they be given a written explanation of their rights in addition to denied boarding compensation, the amount of which depends on the cost of the flight and the length of delay.

For more on consumer rights, visit the website of the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division.



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