Traveling by plane is at once a blessing and a curse: on one hand, it allows you to crisscross the globe at futuristic speeds, but to do it, you’re squeezed into a metal tube with strangers who are all predisposed to hate each other, and given little to no control over the entire process. From power-tripping flight attendants to spending endless, confusing hours waiting on the tarmac, air travel has earned a reputation for making passengers feel powerless.
But if you channel your inner He-Man, you will realize it’s you who has the power. The US Department of Transportation maintains in-depth information about your rights as an air-travel consumer. However, given the breadth and complexity of modern aviation, here’s a shortlist of the most important rights to know you have as an airline passenger.
1. The right to bumping-based compensation.
Airlines are well within their own rights to bump passengers from flights. Overbooking is standard practice, and sometimes this results in too many butts for not enough seats. If you do get bumped, and your rebooking doesn’t get you to your destination within an hour of the initial flight, you are required to be compensated. Another way passengers can exercise this power is by voluntarily giving up their seats and negotiating with the airline for travel vouchers or other goodies, as airlines would rather stay on schedule than hold on to a few hundred dollars.
2. The right to a hotel in case of delay.
This is one of those rights that will vary from airline to airline, but the general agreement is that delays caused by the airline make them responsible for setting passengers up in hotels if the flight is delayed beyond midnight of the day of the scheduled departure. Note that this is not the case with weather delays or anything else that’s out of the airline’s control. Knowing the specifics for your airline will be essential in quickly dealing with an airline employee.
3. The right to deplane during tarmac delays.
Until recently, planes could sit on the tarmac for hours at a time without the airline having to offer passengers food, water, bathrooms, cool air, or the chance to escape the freaking fuselage. Fortunately, passengers are now entitled to be treated like human beings with biological needs. In Europe, A/C, water, and bathrooms must be made available after an hour of sitting, whereas that timeframe is two hours in the US. On the flipside, passengers in Europe can be forced to remain on the plane for five hours at a time before deplaning is an option. In the US, you can deplane after three hours if the plane is actually in the US and four hours if it’s outside the country. There’s a handy guide that answers any questions you may have on the matter, and it is full of information worth knowing.
4. The right to complain.
Not only are you allowed to formally complain, but US air carriers are required to provide you with a means of doing so. Surprisingly, it’s somewhat encouraged to broach problems with airlines, which use that information to improve the quality of their service. There are a number of ways to make a complaint, from emailing to sending a handwritten letter, but social media is often the fastest route to resolution. Whatever your method, know that you are within your rights to speak up about poor experiences. And if you have frequent flyer status with an airline, they are way more inclined to listen to you.
5. The right to advocate on behalf of your pets.
Your pet does not have to go through an X-ray scanner at security. Your pet does not belong in the overhead compartment, and if your pet carrier doesn’t fit under the seat, then the airline is obligated to check the animal in cargo. If it seems like your pet is being treated unfairly or even cruelly, you have every right to speak up about it. Rules for traveling with pets are generally very clear among airlines, and none of them require you to allow your animal to be mistreated.
6. The right to help in a medical emergency.
“Is there a doctor or medical professional on board?” is a question nobody wants to hear over a plane’s PA, but it happens frequently enough that several safeguards are in place for those who volunteer to help sick passengers. According to a report by Traveller, an Australian travel publication, “Australian law provides protection for Good Samaritans. In the case of US airlines, the Aviation Medical Assistance Act of 1998 also provides legal protection for medically qualified professionals who volunteer in a Good Samaritan capacity.” So if you’re up in the air and hesitant to help an ailing passenger, know that you are legally safe to do so.
7. The right to be treated with humanity when traveling with a disability.
The Department of Transportation states, “In 1986 Congress passed the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), requiring the Department of Transportation (DOT) to develop a new regulation which ensures that persons with disabilities will be treated without discrimination in a way consistent with the safe carriage of all passengers.” This includes international flights on international airlines. There are 17 pages that delve into exactly what that entails, but basically, passengers with disabilities cannot be refused a flight or treated in a way that needlessly stigmatizes them. If this does happen, “travelers who disagree with a carrier’s actions toward them can pursue the issue with the carrier’s CRO on the spot,” as well as take formal legal action after the fact.
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