Passengers’ rights: what the airlines don’t tell you

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Last week, Canada’s transport minister announced the government is working on a bill of rights for airline passengers. And judging by the cries of outrage from Canadian travellers – like the 15-year-old boy who slept on the floor of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport after Air Canada bumped him from a flight —it’s about time.

But it got me thinking about airline passengers’ rights. What do the airlines have to give you if they bump you from the flight you booked, leave you sitting in the airport for hours (or days), or send your luggage to some other city?

I really didn’t know. So I decided to take a look at passengers’ rights as they exist here in Canada, in the United States, and in the European Union.passengers' rights airplane-at-gate It was an eye-opening experience, and it revealed some facts that all flyers should know.

Canada

The Great White North may have stricter banking rules than the U.S. – which saved us from the meltdown of 2008 – but when it comes to protecting air passengers, it’s way behind. “We’re down there with Third World countries because we have no mandated protections,” says one critic.

Instead, the government got the major Canadian airlines – Air Canada and WestJet — to adopt their own voluntary codes of conduct. So if you want to know what you’re entitled to when they let you down, you have to go digging through their websites for what the government calls their tariffs, or conditions of carriage.

Looking at the tariffs for Air Canada, I found that there are some defined remedies if the airline lets you down. If a delayed or cancelled flight will make you late, AC says it will give you a seat on its next available flight — it may even give you an upgrade at no additional cost. If you decide to just cancel your trip, it will refund your ticket; if the delay occurs at a connecting airport, it will fly you back to where you started.

Failing that, it may even get you a seat on another airline – but only if “passenger provides credible verbal assurance … of certain circumstances that require his/her arrival at destination earlier than options set out … above.” So talk fast.

If your flight is delayed more than four hours, AC will give you a meal voucher of a value depending on the time of day. If it’s over eight hours, it will get you a hotel, with round-trip transport – if you come from out of town. And if you’re already on the plane when the delay happens, the airline will give you food and drink “if it is safe, practical and timely to do so”. After 90 minutes, you will be allowed to leave the plane.

What about lost luggage?

If you arrive at your destination and your luggage doesn’t, Air Canada may reimburse you for some of your expenses – if you get authorization from an airport agent or its Central Baggage Office Call Centre. There are forms to fill out, and a number to call. After five days, the luggage is still missing, you’ll be asked to file a claim; it must be filed within 21 days.

Carry-on suitcaseFor travel within Canada, the maximum the airline will pay for your lost luggage is $1,500 Canadian per passenger. For international travel that’s subject to the Montreal Convention, an air travel code of conduct that covers most major countries, the maximum amount is listed as 1,357 euros, or $1,663 U.S. per passenger, “in most cases” (these figures may change depending on current exchange rates).

So, you can get reimbursed if Air Canada loses your luggage, but there’ll be a lot of red tape involved. That’s one reason I fly carry-on – one of the passengers’ rights that’s become more and more popular. As I say in this post, they can’t lose your luggage when it’s in the bin above your head.

United States

In the U.S., the Department of Transportation has strict rules defining passengers’ rights, and how the airlines have to compensate you if you’re made late due to overbooking. If you arrive one to two hours after your scheduled time on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international trip, the airline is supposed to pay you 200 percent of the one-way fare to your destination, up to $650 U.S. If it’s over two hours late (or four hours international), it owes you 400 percent of the fare, up to $1,300 U.S.

It can arrange a flight for you on another airline, but it has to cover all the expenses involved. As well, no matter what happens, you get to keep your original ticket, which you can get refunded or use for a future trip.

It sounds like passengers’ rights are being well taken care of. However, these requirements apply only when the delay is caused by overbooking. And in most cases the airlines avoid them by offering to give passengers vouchers for future travel in return for getting bumped – as happened to me on my way home from China a couple of years back. If the delay is due to bad weather, mechanical failures or some other external factor, you may be out of luck.

Lost luggage

If your luggage is delayed, the U.S. airlines are required to cover some of your out-of-pocket expenses while they look for it. How they do it, and howpassengers' rights airport lounge much they pay, is up to them. Some will give you a set amount – for example, $50 U.S. for five days. But they’re obliged to reimburse you for any “reasonable” expenses, which can be substantial, so keep the bills.

If the luggage isn’t found, the airline must compensate you for your bag and its contents, to a maximum of $3,300 U.S. If it’s an international flight, the maximum compensation is currently $1,750 U.S.

Of course, you’re required report the loss immediately – within four hours in some cases – and apply for compensation swiftly, often in as little as 21 days. To get the amount you think you’re entitled to, you’ll have to prove to the airline what was in the bag, and what it’s worth. Having some photographs, or even original receipts, helps; however, if the contents are used, you’ll get the depreciated value.

If you’re travelling with really valuable items, the best advice is to put them in your carry-on. If that’s impossible, consider buying extra insurance to cover them.

Europe

The European Union also has a strict set of rules on passengers’ rights. If your flight is delayed for two hours, you’re entitled to drinks, meals, and a hotel room with transport, if necessary. If it’s delayed by five hours, you’re entitled to a refund; if you choose to accept it, the airline’s obligations are fulfilled.

If your flight arrives three or more hours late at your destination within the EU, the airline must pay you 250 euros for trips up to 1,500 kilometres, and 400 euros for trips over 1,500 km. If you’re flying to an airport outside the EU, those amounts are the same, but you’re entitled to 600 euros for flights over 3,500 km (that includes all flights to the Americas).

If your flight is cancelled or you’re denied boarding for reasons under airline’s control – not just overbooking — the airline must give you alternative passenger's rights airport detailtransportation, a refund, or a flight back to where you started the trip, plus compensation of 250 to 600 euros. The amount depends on the distance of your flight and whether you end up in a higher or lower seat class.

As with the U.S. regulation, though, these requirement apply only for delays caused by things under the airline’s control. If they’re due to “extraordinary circumstances”, like bad weather or an air traffic controller strike, there’s no compensation. However, the airline must still give you assistance while you’re waiting for another flight, like food and drink. And, it must either give you a refund within seven days, find an alternative flight for you, allow you to rebook at a later date, or supply transport to another airport if needed for your new flight.

Lost luggage

European airlines are required to compensate you if your luggage is lost, damaged or delayed, up to a maximum of 1,220 euros.  You have to apply to the airline in writing within seven days of the flight, or within 21 days of receiving a bag that was delayed. Each airline has its own form.

European regulations are comprehensive, but there are reports of passengers not being informed of their rights, and of passengers having a hard time getting their compensation. In fact, there are online companies that offer to press people’s claim for a cut of the airline compensation.

 

So that’s what you didn’t know about airline passengers’ rights. Of course, the subject is far more complex; you could write a book about all the subtleties and exceptions that can come into play. Still, it’s important to know that if your flight is delayed or cancelled more than an hour or two, the airline may owe you some compensation, and it’s never a bad idea to ask for it. In a lot of cases, people just suffer in silence. But passengers’ rights do exist — maybe even in Canada some day.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

4 Comments

  1. I saw an article about them squashing more seats into a Boeing 777 and thought but everyone is getting taller and fatter! It got me to thinking about past vacations and travel and I had an aha! moment . The vast majority there had been a delay or something like my luggage was soaking wet and dry clean only clothes ruined.
    Most of the big delays 8 plus hours or over night have been aircraft technical problems and then the landing time at the other international airport has been missed.
    The worst have been where we cleared customs etc and sat in international departure for 9 hours to be told to go back to internal flights , re-check in , get a flight to another Canadian airport and then clear international departures again and leave Canada from another airport. We did it but many of the old people on our flight struggled with the long walks and lack of instructions. It spoils the feel good factor of a vacation. There are not enough staff to deal with the changes and help. We were told to go the wrong way back through customs. In this day and age might that not get us tasered? With the current state of Europe and our low Canadian $ , i think I will tour Canada by car for now!

    • I agree, Kathy — it is crazy to see the airlines cramping the seats even tighter when people are getting taller and fatter. Sometimes you feel like you’re part of a cattle drive. My biggest pet peeve is the exhorbitant fees for changing your reservation — but don’t get me started …

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