The one rule your airline hates the most

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If there’s one regulation that airlines hate more than anything, it’s the 24-hour rule.

Can you blame them? In 2012, the Transportation Department required air carriers to allow you to hold a reservation without payment or cancel a booking without penalty for 24 hours after your reservation, with some exceptions.

That allowed passengers to fix mistakes, such as a misspelled name or a wrong date. They could just cancel the ticket and rebook, as long as their departure date was more than a week away. But this government-mandated “out” clause probably also cost airlines millions in revenue.

Now, regulators want to expand that rule to travel agencies, requiring that they also offer the same option for customers. A vast majority of agents already abide by the 24-hour rule, but a few travel retailers have discovered ways to weasel their way out.

If history is any guide, this rule will be as tough to enforce as version one. Unscrupulous ticket sellers love to redefine “day” or add new policies of their own to make it difficult to invoke this controversial clause. The only way we’ll benefit from this proposed regulation, assuming it’s adopted, is if we remember it — and invoke it.

Consider what happened to Shannon Harrell, a nursery school teacher who lives in Como, Italy. She paid $4,600 for round-trip tickets from Milan to Seattle this summer for her and her two sons. Within a few hours, she discovered a mistake. But when she tried to cancel the itinerary, a representative for eDreams, the European online agency she’d booked her tickets through, told her she was too late. The agency’s policy was only to refund the flight if canceled the same day, not within 24 hours.

“I just can’t believe that there’s nothing I can do but lose that money,” she says.

EDreams did not respond to questions about its refund rules.

It’s not just online agencies. Another reader, Christina Conte, was fare-shopping on the British Airways website when she noticed a pop-up window that cheerfully announced it offered “free” cancellations, as long as they were made within four hours. If she caught the mistake after then, but before her 24 hours were up, British Airways would charge her a “small fee.”

The Transportation Department has kept busy enforcing its 24-hour rule for airlines. Two summers ago, it fined EgyptAir $60,000 for violating rules requiring the disclosure of, among other things, the 24-hour rule. That September, it dinged Aeroflot with the same penalty, also for a 24-hour rule violation. Last May, the department issued an advisory reminding airlines that “carriers may not deceive consumers about the 24-hour reservation requirement.”

Clearly, airlines want your tickets to be completely non-refundable from the moment you push the “buy” button. So do online travel agencies.

No one knows how much money airlines were able to pocket because of a “no refunds” rule before 2012, but it’s likely that in the years since the DOT’s 24-hour rule went into effect, some ticketing agencies may have benefited by extracting a refund from an airline, then keeping a passenger’s money because of their own internal no-refunds policy.

To keep your money, agencies and airlines occasionally come up with “creative new twists” that allow them to circumvent regulations, says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University. The most common tactic is to interpret 24 hours as a day, and to tell customers they have until the end of the next business day, even when they complete their reservation at 11 p.m. That would give customers less than 24 hours.

“This is not the norm, and most good online travel agencies do honor the 24-hour rule exactly as it should be honored,” she says.

Online travel agencies seem cool to the Transportation Department’s latest proposed set of consumer protections, and no matter how well-intentioned, they are unlikely to be met with their approval.

In a perfect world, requesting that your travel agent refund an airline ticket within 24 hours shouldn’t be necessary. It’s not a perfect world.

Should the 24-hour rule be expanded to agencies?

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Make the 24-hour rule work for you

Invoke the rule. The 24-hour rule is widely interpreted to apply to airline reservations, regardless of where they’re made. Remind your travel agency of the rule, and you’ll likely get a refund.

Contact the DOT. File a complaint via the Transportation Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division: dot.gov/airconsumer/file-consumer-complaint. A letter from DOT is often enough to secure a refund, even when technically, you’re not entitled to one under the existing rule.

Leave a comment on in support of the new rule. Click on regulations.gov and search for DOT-OST-2014-0056, then follow the directions.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • PsyGuy

    Again, you can’t trust an airline to do anything that isn’t in their best interest, and keeping your money is typically in their best interest.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I had a UA rep once tell me that the “24 Hour Rule” was measured off GMT, so, since I had booked the flight at 4pm CDT and was trying to change the date at 11pm CDT, a day had already passed.

    I fixed her wagon with a few nasty emails and a long conversation with a supervisor.

    No, you cannot arbitrarily decide what is and is not a day.

    Got the ticket date changed…but really?

  • Cybrsk8r

    WOW! That’s pretty scummy.

  • TonyA_says

    Ever wonder why they don’t have this rule elsewhere (in other countries)?

  • Fred Rupert

    That makes sense because a day using GMT time is only 12 hours, where as in all other time zones a day is 24 hours. This UA rep clearly graduated from Harvard or Yale, definitely an Ivy League school at least.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe because they might have stronger consumer protection laws that actually favor the consumer?

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe their change fees are a lot cheaper?
    Or, they really take their vacations a lot more seriously (so they are sure to go).
    Throughout the years, I’ve only used the ARC one day void period for mistakes (like name changes) or flight date changes. I’ve never had a customer actually change their minds (off course I only sell international travel so maybe that’s why).
    I think another big reason is most PNRs I create have at least a 72 hour ticketing period. Plus you can more or less tell when the airline will change their fare because you see the fare deadlines (in GDS). You really cannot do that online so that is one big advantage using a human with a GDS.
    The customer can sit a day or two and then buy and pay.
    So I really think the expansion of this 24 rule is really only useful for belligerent OTAs – but why use one anyway if they are belligerent?

  • TonyA_says

    Maybe a Brit? Don’t they use GMT there?

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Over the years, I have a lot of co-works, business associates, clients and etc. that live outside of the USA (mostly Europe and Asia) that have told me how our consumer service, refund policies, etc. are much better than their countries.
    For example, there are very few (if any) consumer protection laws in China. To return something to a store (a non-western brand) is nearly impossible…once you purchase something, it yours…no refund or exchange. Once on a tour, a fruit vendor offered samples to the group and expect people to pay for the samples if they didn’t purchased some fruit.

  • TonyA_says

    First, you need to understand the current law (or rule) for airlines:

    14 CFR 259.5(b)(4)

    § 259.5 Customer Service Plan.

    (b) Contents of Plan. Each Customer Service Plan shall address the following subjects and comply with the minimum standards set forth:

    (4) Allowing reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or cancelled without penalty, for at least twenty-four hours after the reservation is made if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure;

    Second, you need to understand the travel agencies are not airlines.

    That said, adopting the same rule for travel agencies will require airlines to allow their agencies the same power that airlines have.

    A travel agent today cannot hold a reservation and guarantee the fare would be the same later. That’s why we always disclose – Fare can change unless ticketed. The airline can always change their fares (in fact they can easily do so every hour).

    An airline can always cancel their own ticket and refund you. Travel agents cannot.
    US travel agents who ticket INSIDE the USA use ARC to settle payments (reporting and accounting) with the participating airlines. Normally, an agent has one (business) day to void the tickets they issue (tickets sold in the weekend is next business day). There is no law that requires agents to offer the 24 hour commitment stated above. However, it is good practice for an agent to use their voiding ‘privileges’ for better customer service.

    But many human agents do not work 24 x 7 so this poses logistical questions as to the operational meaning of 24 hours. If I only work 9-5 M-F except holidays, and can call in sick, then up to what time can you call me to cancel without penalty? Does it mean I need access to my GDS at home, on the road, at a restaurant, etc.?

    Tickets bought OUTSIDE the USA are not done by ARC but through each respective countries’ IATA BSP. Is the USA going to force a 24 hour rule for tickets issued outside the USA? Do they have the power or authority to do that?

    When you go online, the OTA might be ticketing you outside the USA (point of sale is another country) to lower your price. Do they have to disclose this under the current law? I don’t think so. We live in an increasingly global society and we want to see the cheapest way to buy stuff. I think we need to realize that US law can only go so far to protect us from our “ignorance”.

  • Cybrsk8r

    HUH? I hope what you wrote was an attempt at sarcasm, because if it wasn’t it shows an incredibly poor grasp of the basic fundamentals of how our planet works. What you wrote there is a physical impossibility. A day is 24 hours long no matter where you are on the planet.

  • LFH0

    To avoid the practical problems that might exist with a passenger attempting to cancel with a travel agent within 24 hours, would it be viable to permit the passenger to cancel directly with the carrier within 24 hours (so that the cancellation would be timely), and then deal with the agent when he or she actually becomes available?

  • TonyA_says

    The practical problem will always exist because there is an intermediary between the agency and the airline called ARC.
    ARC is the one that does all the accounting and reporting for US based agencies.
    Even if an airline changes the status of an e-ticket to void in their own database, it does not mean the accounting between the agency and ARC will not get screwed up. What happens to the customer’s money or CC charges?

    Also why will an airline inject itself into the process? How will the airline vet that the one calling to cancel is really the passenger?
    For this reason, the transactions with the passenger mostly flows one way – from the agent onward till it is time to check in.

    Voiding a ticket is a complex issue when viewed from a global perspective.
    You might be able to void a ticket but how about getting your money back?

  • LFH0

    Certainly there would be many accounting issues involved, possibly messy ones. But could they be resolved, or would it be an impossibility? Even if it were to take a long time, were cumbersome, and perhaps resulting in many such accounting transactions getting screwed-up, there would not be any time pressure for resolving those issues (other than the passenger being without money for a while), unlike the strict 24-hour clock for cancelling (thereby allowing the carrier maximum time to re-book those cancelled reservations). It would probably also increase costs (and we all know to where those increased costs get passed along).

    The reason for injecting an airline in the process is that if passengers possess this right, then there needs to be a way to implement it. Could it be done without the airline’s involvement? Probably not, since the premise was that the passenger could not reach his or her agent. How does the airline know who is calling? How does the airline know who is calling on a direct book? Should the person recite the PNR number? I would think there should be some mechanism, either existing or implementable, that could work.

  • TonyA_says

    I am quite familiar about overseas ticket sales.
    If (emphasis in if) they have a void period it is usually the same day of ticketing. That is because sales reporting ends after midnight.
    However, many foreigners get much longer ticketing time limits than we do here. This is especially true for countries with citizens needing visas.
    The crazy phenomenon we are experiencing is due to ONLINE sales since you cannot hold a reservation first and then buy it later after you check its accuracy.

  • TonyA_says

    Why is this an airline or agency problem?
    It is so easy to the government to dictate rules without understanding its full consequences. Since they are not the ones doing the job then why should they really care?

    Voluntary travel agency voids have been around for a very long time. They worked. because you have humans as part of the equation.
    Please note that the void period was longer than 24 hours before 2007 IIRC. Airline’s tightened them up for more control.

    VOIDS do not work very well with full automation (i.e. online systems) because you are not sure whether the other systems you will interface with will authorize and accept the void. Then you have the actual payment refund issue (after authorization).

    IMO this is a rule that is not worth the problem it creates.
    It rewards lazy idiots who can’t do it right the first time.

  • AH

    oddly enough, this was common practice back in the 70s – before deregulation – and into the 80s. i used to do it all the time. i’d call an airline, check flight schedules and prices, then “hold” a reservation for 24 hours. if i didn’t call back and confirm the reservation within 24 hours, it became null and void. (even if i had to give my credit card number to hold the reservation, i was never charged if i’d never confirmed.)
    to me, this is going back to what was the fair thing to do.

  • TonyA_says

    You can still do a reservation hold today, but not online.
    The discussion today centers on ticket voiding (after issue) within 24 hours.
    That’s a whole different story.

  • bodega3

    My clients work with me, not the airline. The airline didn’t issue the ticket, my agency did. My clients can call me on the weekend or if I am not around, I have a back up who can access the GDS. However, my ticketing fee is nonrefundable!

  • jamesbeaz

    Also, be careful: if you buy a ticket on an American carrier that departs OUTSIDE the USA (i.e. Brazil to USA), the 24 hour rule does not apply. Well, at least this is what Delta told me. Chris, true?

  • TonyA_says

    It applies.

    Covered carrier means a certificated carrier, a commuter carrier, or a foreign air carrier operating to, from or within the United States, conducting scheduled passenger service or public charter service with at least one aircraft having a designed seating capacity of 30 or more seats.

  • bodega3

    I thought it only applied to SITI USA. Do you have a link as I can’t find anything online regarding this.

  • bodega3

    As a US ticketing agent, I thought it was a US regulation for tickets SITI USA. TonyA says differently, but I can’t find that stated online, so far.

  • TonyA_says

    Google 14 CFR 259 Enhanced Protection for Airline Passengers.
    This is the law that requires airlines with service to, from and within the USA to publish a Customer Service Plan and within that plan the airline must says how they plan to do the required 24 hour rule.
    My interpretation of the covered carrier definition for this includes foreign carriers if for flights to and from USA except 100% transit only.
    Since this law is only for airlines themselves and not their travel agents then it should not matter if it is SITI, SOTI, SOTO, SITO. What matters is if the pax is traveling from and to the USA.
    IMO foreign airline hate this law but it is there, so too bad :)

  • TonyA_says

    Remember that law does not affect AGENTS.
    There is no law requring agents to void tickets within 24 hours of issuance.
    And, certainly there is no way for TAs to hold a reservation for day and guarantee the fare would not change.
    Any change of this law to include agencies will be a pain since now SITI matters because you cannot compel a travel agent outside the USA to obey US law.

  • Travelnut

    That was sarcasm. :)

  • AlanBowen

    It all depends on the agency, here in Europe E-Dreams, based in Barcelona, has a reputation and not one to be proud of. A quick check on any major consumer site would have warned any customer to steer clear but the fact that the business flourishes is a sign that the majority of travellers only ask questions after the event, not before.

  • bodega3

    I see that on their website, but I don’t know that they have to do that. I looked at the other site, but didn’t see the 24 hour rule coming up. If you can find the rule please share it, as I though the rule only applied to SITI USA.

  • TonyA_says

    14 CFR 259.5 – Customer Service Plan.

    § 259.5 Customer Service Plan.
    (a) Adoption of Plan. Each covered carrier shall adopt a Customer Service Plan applicable to its scheduled flights and shall adhere to the plan’s terms.
    (b) Contents of Plan. Each Customer Service Plan shall address the following subjects and comply with the minimum standards set forth:

    (4) Allowing reservations to be held at the quoted fare without payment, or cancelled without penalty, for at least twenty-four hours after the reservation is made if the reservation is made one week or more prior to a flight’s departure;

    So what is a covered carrier?

    14 CFR 259.3 – Definitions.

    § 259.3 Definitions.

    Covered carrier means a certificated carrier, a commuter carrier, or a foreign air carrier operating to, from or within the United States, conducting scheduled passenger service or public charter service with at least one aircraft having a designed seating capacity of 30 or more seats.

  • jpp42

    Could the process be modified so that a ticket isn’t normally issued until 24 hrs have passed? In that case if someone cancels within the 24h window, agents would have the potentially easier option of cancelling just the reservation? Then the ticket can be issued once it’s determined that the customer hasn’t cancelled.

  • Lindabator

    Actually, agents such as myself (brick and mortar) already DO offer it – many times they cannot decide if they are going or not (corporate) and we issue so they don’t lose the advance purchase price, and just cancel the next day if a no go. :)