Whaddya know about airline passenger rights? Not much

pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com
pcruciatti / Shutterstock.com
Beyond the fact that you don’t have too many, what do you know about your rights as an airline passenger? If you said “not much,” then you’re in good company.

Like Judy Williams. When the airline lost her luggage en route to a conference in Asheville, N.C., a representative promised to find it. But by the time she was reunited with her suitcase two days later, she’d already attended a professional conference wearing jeans and a T-shirt — not ideal attire for an attorney.

Did I say attorney? I sure did. Even someone who practices law doesn’t necessarily know her rights.

“The airline said it would reimburse me the cost of half of one of my outfits,” she says. “Was that fair? I wish I’d known what my rights were.”

The issue of what we know — and should know — will be considered at an upcoming meeting of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP), a congressional committee that advises Congress on air travel consumer issues. Advocates want airlines and airports to do one simple thing: Tell consumers what their rights are when they fly.

Williams probably had more rights than her airline led her to believe.

For bags missing more than 24 hours, an airline normally pays for a change of clothes, and if the loss is permanent, federal law requires the airline to refund her baggage fee and sets the limit of liability at $3,400.

Airlines are profiting from passenger ignorance, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a non-profit organization that advocates for air travelers. “It can’t continue,” he says.

As the consumer representative on the ACACP, he’s one of the advocates pushing airports and the Transportation Department to place billboards in American airports that notify passengers of their rights.

(Disclosure: I’m co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance and serve as its volunteer ombudsman.)

The proposed notices are modeled on a voluntary European Union campaign launched in 2007 to inform passengers of their travel rights.

A U.S.-based campaign would notify travelers of their rights in the event they’re denied boarding, have their checked luggage lost, or experience a flight delay or cancellation.

But it’s easier said than done. Some of your rights are a work in progress, with new proposed government rules expected to be released soon. Even travel experts can’t keep up.

Also, something as simple as tacking posters to an airport wall would require the blessings of airlines, airports, local municipalities that own the airports, and the federal government.

As you might expect, airlines are cool to the idea. Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group, says U.S. airlines have “long supported passenger rights” and that today, customers know exactly what they are buying when they book a ticket. “Information for consumers about their rights is available on every major airline’s website and is easily accessible,” she says. But the industry would oppose a mandate to place posters at airports because it would be overkill.

Debby McElroy, the interim president of the Airports Council International-North America, a trade group for U.S. airports, says her organization also questions the need for the posters.

Most of the spaces where the signs would appear are leased by airlines, and those under the airport’s control are prime spots for ads, which airports rely on for income. Still, she says, “We look forward to discussing this.”

The Transportation Department is already using every means available to inform passengers of their rights. That includes a recently redesigned Aviation Consumer Protection website dot .gov/airconsumer) with information on consumers’ rights, including how to file a complaint with an airline. When passengers complain, they also receive a brochure called “Fly Rights,” which outlines their rights as air travelers.

“We’ll continue our efforts to make sure airline consumers are aware of their rights,” says Bill Mosley, a department spokesman.

Perhaps a better question would be: Why would anyone not want to tell passengers about their rights?

It’s clear that everyone down the line has done what’s required of them. Airlines post their policies and contracts of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the air carrier — on their websites.

The government has followed every congressional mandate on air travel rights. And airports have cooperated with authorities when required to do so.

But what’s the harm in more information? Passengers such as John McNeal say there’s only one beneficiary from keeping passengers in the dark: the airline industry.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Of course there should be a requirement for airlines to post passengers’ rights in airports. The only reason airlines would object is that it limits their ability to ignore their obligations.” (McNeal is in a position to know. Like Williams, he’s an attorney, but also is a retired assistant attorney general for Illinois.)

I’m not convinced this is the only reason why airlines, airports or indeed, the Transportation Department, might resist this idea. After all, a project like this would take time and cost money, both of which always seem to be in short supply.

But the truth is undeniable. Few air travelers know all their rights.

And that’s wrong.

Do airlines try to prevent us from knowing our rights when we fly?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Cybrsk8r

    I can think of one suggestion. When you turn on your laptop in most airports, you can access the airport’s web portal, but that’s about it. Anything more requires you to pony up for 24 hours of access (another rip-off, but that’s a subject for another day). Airports should give open access to the Aviation Consumer Protection website. I mean, only people who need information then and there will access that site. I can’t see any reason why airports or airlines woud object to providing this small service, unless their aim really is to keep travelers in the dark.

  • LFH0

    Generally I strongly favor policies that require disclosure so that consumers can, if they choose, make informed decisions. However, one’s “rights” with respect to air transportation are numerous and wide-reaching, and may turn on specific facts and the application of particular and exacting provisions of law (from statutes, regulations, and cases). I can’t imagine any widely-disseminated posting of rights would be sufficiently readable and comprehensive. What I favor is having all the provisions readily available to anyone having a desire to look-up particular provisions, and to have “posted” (whether it is signage, notices on tickets, or something where all intending passengers are certain to see) how to readily find the provisions. I think that’s already largely the case–and yes, anything can certainly be “improved”–with airlines (though bus lines and railroads still lag far behind airlines with these types of disclosures–try to find a comprehensive contract of carriage for Amtrak or Greyhound Lines, either online or in person at a station!).

  • LFH0

    You might even take that one step further: airliners with wifi service might well make available a connection to users for additional “free” access to their carrier’s websites, thereby allowing ready access to contracts of carriage while airborne, and possibly reduce the number of disputes between passengers and crews as to the terms of transportation.

  • Maxwell_Daemon

    Three weeks ago I flew round trip on American Airlines Paris -> Boston. On both legs EU261 applied. However AA did not give out any information to that effect, which by law they should. What they did was hand you a rather vaguely written piece of paper saying that if problems occurred to contact them for a solution.

    I didn’t have a problem on either leg of the trip, if I had, knowing what my rights are, I would have used EU261. I always have a copy of it with me. Most of the other passengers would have probably been screwed.

    I’ll be flying round trip Paris to Austin in December on United. I’ll bet anyone here that inadequate information as to passenger rights will be handed out by United Airlines.

    Any takers?

  • sirwired

    A couple notes:
    Aren’t most of your rights that you would need at the airport, including baggage liability and bumping mentioned in the little boarding pass folder? I know it’s not given out at every kiosk, but if you check luggage you always get a copy (if they have any) since that’s what the baggage claim check gets attached to.

    If the Feds decree that there shall be a poster with passenger rights listed in every check-in area, it won’t matter what the local airport authority thinks about it, or how much money they could get for leasing the same space, as federal law would preempt state and local authority over the matter. (Just like the Feds don’t need permission from the state before ordering businesses to put up Labor Law posters…)

  • Martine

    I’m not sure posters would be the best route, but pamphlets outlining passenger rights would be useful. I’m thinking of the format for the beginning of credit card offers: Apr, Apr if you default, credit limit. The basics. In this case, it would include what happens if baggage is delayed or lost, if you are bumped, if your flight is delayed or cancelled. After that, they can put the legalese.

  • TonyA_says

    Does the police tell you what your rights are, either? NYC Stop and Frisk is perfect example. Well, come to think of it, do they still teach kids the first ten ammendments in school? Dumbed down consumers is all they want.

  • jim6555

    Most airports are build and improved with public funds. The airlines don’t pay anything to use the air traffic control system and other amenities. Not all airline passengers carry laptops or tablets when they fly. How will these people see what their rights are? I prefer posting passenger’s rights at each gate. If the airlines lose some advertising space, that should be considered part of the cost of doing business.

  • MarkKelling

    UA now attaches the baggage claim receipt to the back of the part of your boarding pass you get to keep. I haven’t seen any holders since the merger with CO, at least not at any of the airports I fly through. Frontier still gives you the holders and Southwest will if you ask. Air Canada didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked. Not sure about others. And if you use the electronic boarding pass on your phone, then where does the receipt get attached? :-)

  • MarkKelling

    Even if the rights were posted everywhere in the airport, the airlines would still find ways to deny they exist when things go wrong and the passengers should be given something. After all, it costs the airlines money when they have to give passengers anything.

  • MarkKelling

    I flew Air Canada from Denver to Paris and back a few months ago. Nothing was given to any passengers concerning EU law even though we were several house late on the return. It was annoying that we were delayed, but they got is where we needed to go so I didn’t feel the need to ask for anything or that they owed me anything else. If the delay had extended overnight, then I probably would have wanted and needed more.

  • Oline Wright

    the airlines often talk about a safety book when flying as things to know in case of an emergency so if they don’t post the passengers rights anywhere else they should post them there or in a readable text when you get your ticket.

  • Oline Wright

    nursing Facilites in the states are required to post Residents rights somewhere visible that the residents can access and read if they so choose. (or at least they did in Kansas) I see no reason that there should not be a standard flyers rights post in each companies terminal.

  • whateverak

    How about placing a copy of passenger right in the seat pocket or publish them in the airlines magazine that you also find in that seat pocket?

  • TonyA_says

    That makes too much sense :)
    Remember when you used to get a Warsaw (then Montreal) convention disclosure printed on a ticket jacket?
    Now all you get is a commercial offer for the airline’s credit card if you get a piece of paper.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Passengers may have rights, but implementing them is beyond difficult. I am going to read this article carefully, summarize it and keep it on my laptop. But I know it’s hopeless. The airline does whatever it wants and passengers go along … who wants a fight with airline people when you’re trying to fly somewhere?

  • marlio

    Well I am saving this information for future reference, if needed.

  • Stephen0118

    The question becomes even if the airline provides it, either on a piece of paper or posted at the gate , how many will take the time to read it? Chris asked this before. How many of you read the EULA thoroughly when installing software on your computer? I just glance through but don’t read it word for word.

  • LFH0

    Which rights to post? The law is long because there are many rights and obligations, each with numerous nuances and exceptions. With all due respect to Ed McMahon, I cannot image that the nursing facilities in Kansas post *every* right. Someone had to pick and choose.

    If many are chosen the end result could be a lot of fine print posted on a wall that no more people will read than those who read the contract of carriage online. If few are chosen the result is incomplete and confusion can continue. I think public posting is redundant because the entire contract of carriage is in fact available at the airport for public inspection, as well as being available online. For those reasons I can see a requirement that it be posted that the full contract of carriage is available for public inspection at a certain place, but I have difficulty accepting much more.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I respectfully disagree. That analysis is contrary to common experience and practice.

    The government would require posting of laws/rights that are most likely to affect the intended audience.
    For example, there are many laws regarding lenders and borrowers, but the main ones (e.g. interest rate, length of term, etc.)) are posted, in bold on any consumer finance contract.

    There are innumerable laws regarding employment, but the employer only has to post certain ones such as minimum wage, meal and rest breaks, OSHA, and overtime. Compliant posters can be purchased from any office supply store for a pittance.

    In the travel venue, what is the most likely scenario that a passenger is likely to encounter? Denied boarding, both voluntary and involuntary, late/cancelled flights, etc. Those rights would be posted in simple English, like we do in numerous other businesses.

  • EdB

    The EULA is more akin to the Contract of Carriage than a pamphlet explaining passenger rights. What I feel the airlines should have to do is when someone reports lost luggage, get bumped, etc, is to give them an approved pamphlet explaining their rights. I’m sure they would be more likely to read it then.

  • EdB

    To me, the problem with the current passenger rights are they have very little teeth and it seems most require the DOT or FAA to actually go after violations. Let travelers be able to take the airlines to small claims in their location and I’m sure you would see airline’s policies change really quickly as they lost more and more cases.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    GENIUS! Local small claims court – THAT would get some attention. Would need a substantial “filing fee” to keep out the crazies who want to sue because they didn’t like the food.

  • polexia_rogue

    i voted this up because this is the main point- telling people their rights costs them time and money.

    the only way they will EVER do it is if the government forces them to. (and by goverment i mean the USA, since all seem to love ignoring the EU.)

  • MarkKelling

    Now days it almost seems the Geneva Convention would be the proper thing to print on your ticket packet.

  • Bill___A

    There are ways to find the information. Do we really have to have big posters all over the place with every little thing? People don’t read signs anyways. We know that from those that ignore the ones up there already…no parking, no smoking…

  • EdB

    Yes, there are ways to find the information while you are home on your computer and have all the time you need. However, when you are on the road and pressed for time, getting to this information is not as easy. And I believe the airline take advantage of this by denying rights they know you have, but nothing too back up your side or you don’t even know what your rights are.

  • Bill___A

    I am pretty sure that the whole agreement is printed on that pdf I keep every time I get an Air Canada ticket. That’s why the ticket is at least six pages long.
    Good point to put it in the airline magazines, but I just don’t see this as our biggest problem when travelling.

  • innchfromnj

    print them out at home?