What does your airline owe you when it cancels your flight?

By | May 9th, 2017

Liz Vivas was planning on spending the weekend in Los Angeles. She was traveling with Delta Air Lines on business to speak at a conference. But the night before she was due to fly, she received a text informing her that her flight was canceled. Worse still, the next alternative flight with availability was the following Monday — so she missed her conference.

While Delta will refund Vivas the cost of her ticket, she asked us whether she was entitled to compensation for the cost of her nonrefundable hotel and shuttle.

We regularly hear from travelers who want to know what compensation they can claim from an airline when their flight is canceled. So we thought it would be helpful to explain what compensation (if any) Vivas and anyone else in a similar situation is due.

What can Vivas claim for her canceled flight? Let’s look at what Delta’s contract of carriage has to say. Rule 240 is the key; it contains a subtle heading that says, in boldface:

A. Flight Schedules are Not Guaranteed.

See what I mean by subtle? But if that was not clear enough, the conditions go on to state:

….published schedules, flight times, aircraft type, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed.

I know what you are thinking — that can’t be correct, can it?

Well, let’s get the bad news out of the way. It is correct. Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules, aren’t obliged to and therefore don’t have to pay compensation. Don’t believe me? Then see what the Department of Transportation (DOT)
consumer guide to air travel has to say:

Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. There are many things that can, and often do, make it impossible for flights to arrive on time.

Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.

We know this often comes as a shock to new travelers, who think that an airline sells a ticket to get someone to a destination at a specific time. The harsh reality is that an airline only agrees to get you from point A to point B — nothing more.

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This means that Vivas can’t make a claim for the cost of her nonrefundable hotel or shuttle. So do the airlines have to offer anything if they cancel your flight?

Well, they should either offer a refund or put you on the next available flight. The DOT guide advises that if the cancellation means there would be a significant delay, find out if another airline has space and then ask the first airline if they will endorse your ticket to the other airline.

Regular travelers will know airlines are reluctant to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst the airline can say is no.


By the way, I have said before that air travel can be stressful. This is even more true for those who are not seasoned travelers. Therefore, to make your life easier, I suggest that you read the DOT guide. It’s really useful and not only sets out your rights, but also gives many handy hints.

Now for some good news. If you are traveling internationally, the Montreal Convention may come to your rescue — emphasis on “may.”

Article 19 of the Convention provides that the airline is responsible for damage occasioned by delay. Some courts, both in the U.S. and in other countries, have held that this means the airline can be responsible for consequential losses (such as hotel costs) because of delayed or canceled flights.

Remember how I only said the Convention may come to your rescue? That’s because the airline has a defense to a claim (and of course you have to file a claim) if it can show that “[i]t took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for it to take such measures.”

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Sadly for travelers, “all measures” has not been interpreted to mean an airline must do everything in its power to avoid delay, only what is reasonable. That means any claim will be difficult.

Does that mean you shouldn’t ask the airline for compensation? Not at all. A short, polite letter, with reference to Article 19, may get you something. Again it doesn’t hurt to ask.

If you are traveling further afield, maybe across to the pond to the U.K., where I am based, EU 261 is likely to come to your rescue. It applies to travel to, from and within the European Union (and Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) and provides for compensation for delayed — and, crucially, canceled — flights.

In order to qualify, your flight must either depart from an airport in the EU on any airline, or arrive in the EU on an EU airline. The maximum compensation is 600 euros (about $637) for flights of more than 3,500 km that are delayed by more than 4 hours. It might not cover all your costs, but it would definitely be better than nothing.

We have recently covered EU 261 in relation to flights being oversold, so I won’t go over it again in detail, but it is worth remembering about for the next time your flight is canceled.

Wherever you are flying, we know that having your flight canceled is no fun. In cases such as Vivas’, when the cancellation means you will arrive too late to do whatever you had planned, it’s even less fun.

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So I will leave this subject with a final tip from the DOT guidance (did I mention that it is very useful;)

If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, you might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays aren’t unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is your most important consideration.



  • sirwired

    FYI, Article 22(1) limits Article 19 damages for passenger delay to 4,150 SDR’s. It’s not zero, but not probably not enough for a court case unless you can recover through Small Claims (or have a large party) if the airline balks.

    As you mentioned, the “reasonable” hurdle is a high bar to cross; it’s not nearly as easy as EU 261. (The broad responsibility and pre-defined claim payouts is probably why there’s a cottage industry of EU 261 claiming firms, and not Montreal Article 19 firms.)

  • Lindabator

    and anything due to weather is a moot point, as it is considered even by the courts as an act of God, and not something the airline could be in control over. Had a mess last Friday – one person’s THREE flights were cancelled (rebook, later cancelled, etc). STILL got her out, just had Delta issue a United ticket – she was satisfied (it actually arrived within 2 hours of her original flight!)

  • Travelnut

    “If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, you might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight.” Ms. Vivas was flying in 2-3 days before her speech. I think she gave it a reasonable amount of leeway. Not knowing where she was flying from or why there were zero seats on flights to LA for two days, I wonder if she could have flown into a city within driving distance and rented a car, or driven to another city that did have open seats to LA.

  • FQTVLR

    We actually do not know that. It said she was planning on the weekend in LA in conjunction with the conference. It never actually mentions when she was supposed to speak. But based on the advice at the end it implies that she was extending her stay after the conference.

  • Jeff W.

    The details are not all there as to why the flight was canceled. And where she was coming from to determine if there were options. But LA is a big town and there should have been plenty of alternatives, depending on the reasons. Many airlines and several airports to choose from.

    But I am not sure why anyone would truly expect an airline to refund you costs beyond the airfare. If you have tickets to a baseball game and it deemed a rain out, you do not get reimbursed for other expenses. The team issues you a new ticket for whenever the make-up game is. Could be the next day, could be next month. If a concert is canceled, same thing. Refund for the event, but not anything else related to it.

  • Blamona

    LA one of the busiest airports in the world. Get money back and fly different airline. That’s less than non refundable hotels and you still make the conference. Why didn’t she consider all alternatives?

  • Attention All Passengers

    “Well, they should either offer a refund or put you on the next available flight. The DOT guide advises that if the cancellation means there would be a significant delay, find out if another airline has space and then ask the first airline if they will endorse your ticket to the other airline.
    Regular travelers will know airlines are reluctant to do this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst the airline can say is no.”
    —-
    But “no” is not the worst of it – You’re still possibly stuck with no alternative and the loss of hotel and other consequential losses. Few, if any airline “ticket” counter staff are even trained how to do this anymore. Then you have to self-advocate, maybe buy a new ticket and get some kind of proof or printout that they will not cancel your return. Customer service simply does not exist anymore, I’m at a loss.

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