What does your airline owe you when your flight is delayed?

Airline terms and conditions — those difficult-to-read contracts of carriages — are often unclear or don’t address a specific type of delay. And if you’re flying to Europe, as Candice Sabatini was, there’s also EU 261, the much-discussed consumer protection law. But that’s widely interpreted as applying to flights from or within a EU member state.

Sabatini is a frequent reader of this site, and her recent American Airlines flight from New York to Paris was held up for mechanical reasons. One other thing to know about her is that she’s a gold-level elite customer booked in business class, so American should want to make her very happy.

She explains,

At regular boarding time, we all started down the jetway. I was person number two, and as we got to the door of the plane, we were told by a flight attendant to go back to the gate. There’s a minor problem to fix with the computer and the lights are off in the plane in order to do the work.

So, back to the gate.

Approximately a half hour later, we were told to board again by the gate agent. We started walking. Once again, we were told by the flight attendant that they’re not ready and to go back to gate.

A few minutes later, we were told to board and that they’re still fixing the computer problem, but it’ll only take a few minutes, and the lights are now on so we might as well all be settled in our seats and ready for take-off.

We sat on the plane for an hour. And then we’re told they need a new part. It’s been ordered from LaGuardia, and no reason for us to sit in the plane. It’ll be at least an hour, so we should all go back to the gate or Admirals Club.

None of the repairs worked, and eventually, a new plane had to be brought in.

These “creeping” delays can be irritating, but everyone understands that it’s better to fly with a working aircraft than to crash into the Atlantic. American makes some customer-service provisions for mechanical delays in its contract of carriage. But they’re pretty vague.

American didn’t offer Sabatini any meal vouchers or drinks during her five-hour delay. As a result of the hold-up, she missed an important meeting in Paris. Before she could complain to the company, it emailed her with an apology and a 5,000-mile credit. (This pre-emptive offer is the subject of an upcoming column. More on that soon.)

I wrote them back on their website’s customer service form and told them that I appreciate the gesture, but didn’t feel it was enough.

I told them that two mechanically-challenged planes, plus one broken replacement part doesn’t inspire confidence in them. I asked them how much they’re cutting back on maintainence staff. I told them I missed my business appointment. I told them my frequent flier history.

They sent me a polite email again apologizing for my troubles, but they are not in any financial position to offer me any more than that.

Technically, American is right. It doesn’t have to do anything more. But should it?

Close vote. Very close.