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Airline passenger rights (Fall 2018)

Download: Airline passenger rights (Fall 2018)   (CANews_flyers-rights-2018.pdf)

 

Table of Contents

Knowing flyers' rights empowers passengers

'Full fare' might not be the final fare

By Monica Steinisch

Airline passenger horror stories don't deter most travelers from getting on a plane. But the knowledge that your flight could be delayed or cancelled, you might get bumped, or your luggage could end up in a different hemisphere than you means that you should understand your rights.

Buying/changing tickets

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) "full fare advertising rule" requires airlines to publish the full cost of a ticket, including any mandatory fees and all taxes. However, that doesn't prevent airlines from later adding on additional fees for things like seat requests, checked bags, meals, etc., so the "full fare" may not be the final fare.

If you buy your non-refundable ticket directly from the airline at least one week before the flight, the company must let you change or cancel the reservation within 24 hours of booking without a fee. Some airlines, like Southwest, are even more lenient with their change and cancellation policies. If you book through a third-party website, you won't have to pay carrier cancellation fees within 24 hours, but the booking site might have a cancellation fee—read the fine print.

Understand the consequences of ticket changes before you buy, since most discount fares are non-refundable. However, non-refundable tickets could become refundable if it's the airline's fault that you choose to cancel—for example, if a non-stop flight is converted to one with a connection. In many cases, the ticket for a cancelled reservation can be used for a future flight, but the change fee can be steep. For fee details, see "Airline fees."

Delayed flights

Airlines have to let you know promptly if your flight will be delayed more than 30 minutes. Beyond that, every airline sets its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers at the airport; there are no federal requirements. You can find an airline's policies listed in its "contracts of carriage."

An airline might provide things like meal vouchers and, for overnight delays, free hotel accommodations, but the law doesn't mandate compensation for delayed domestic flights. On certain international flights, however, airlines are liable for damages unless the airline can prove it did everything possible to prevent the repercussions of the delay or that there was nothing it could do (for example, a delay due to bad weather or a workers' strike). (See "Flyers' rights in the EU and Canada.")

If you foresee a lengthy delay, you can try to arrange another flight with the same airline. This is typically easier done by phone than at the service desk in the airport. Confirm that you won't be charged a cancellation or change fee or have to pay a higher fare.

If you find a flight on another airline and you would like to switch, ask the airline where you hold a ticket if it can arrange to transfer your ticket to a different carrier. The law doesn't require the airline to do this, but it might make the switch to keep you happy.

Delays don't always happen before you get on the plane. If you're stuck on the tarmac (runway) and you're on a domestic flight, the DOT requires airlines to let passengers get off in no more than three hours (domestic) or four hours (international) unless there's a safety, security or "airport operations" reason why the plane can't taxi to the gate and unload. Airlines also have to provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins, and bathrooms must remain available. However, if you get off the plane during a tarmac delay, the airline isn't required to let you back on, and it isn't required to offload your checked baggage before taking off without you!

Cancelled flights

Believe it or not, U.S. airlines are not required to compensate passengers when their domestic flight is delayed or canceled. If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on their next available flight to your destination. But that can mean days of delay until they can book you on a replacement flight. If you face a significant delay to your destination, ask if the airline will transfer your ticket to another carrier if you can find an earlier flight with another company. You can also ask for a full refund and use that money to book a flight on a different airline. (If a cancelled flight means an overnight stay, airlines sometimes put non-local passengers up in a hotel and/or pay for meals, but, again, this isn't required by law.)

Tip: If a delayed or cancelled flight is going to have serious consequences for you, fly in the morning (when delays are less likely) and choose an airline that has multiple daily flights to your destination so that you have a better chance of getting on another one.

Getting 'bumped'

Overbooking is not illegal. As a result, passengers are sometimes "bumped" (left without a seat on the flight). When this happens, the airline will try to entice passengers to give up their seats voluntarily in exchange for compensation—usually travel vouchers, since airlines aren't required to pay cash to volunteers.

If you are involuntarily bumped, the DOT requires the airline to get you to your destination within one hour of the originally scheduled arrival or pay you in cash or check immediately for a longer delay. The amount of compensation is based on the length of the delay and the price of the ticket.

According to FlyersRights.org, arriving one to two hours late on a domestic flight (or one to four hours late on an international flight) entitles you to 200 percent of your one-way fare, up to $675. If the delay is longer, the airline owes you 400 percent of the one-way fare, up to $1,350. However, after news outlets ran video of a United Airlines passenger being violently dragged off a flight to make room for commuting crew in 2017, United (and later Delta) upped the compensation for those who are bumped to as much as $10,000. To be eligible for compensation, you have to check in for your flight by the "deadline."

The DOT requires airlines to give involuntarily bumped passengers their rights in writing, along with an explanation of how the carrier decides who gets bumped (often based on the fare paid and frequent flyer status). But getting to the airport early and checking in before other passengers is good protection against losing your seat.

If you choose to make your own flight arrangements after being bumped, you can request an "involuntary refund" for your ticket and use that money for the new flight. If you paid for optional services on your original flight (for example, seat selection or checked baggage) and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must refund those fees.

If you've accepted compensation, you have 30 days to try to get more money from the airline. But once you deposit the airline's check, you've agreed to accept what they paid you.

Baggage issues

The odds of your baggage being lost are, statistically, very low. But, if you're the last traveler standing at the empty luggage carousel, you'll be glad to know that the airline's liability under DOT regulations is up to $3,500 per passenger for domestic trips, based on a verifiable claim. But be aware that in order to collect, you'll need to go through a claims process that could take weeks, or even months. For international flights originating in the U.S., the liability limit is much lower—around $1,500-$1,700. When your baggage is lost, the airline must also reimburse any checked baggage fees.

For delayed baggage, airlines are required to compensate travelers for "reasonable" expenses incurred before they were able to deliver your bags to you. The amount depends on how long the bags were lost and what sorts of purchases you felt were necessary. You may have to negotiate and, in the case of unusual expenses (a new suit for an event that took place before your luggage was delivered), provide proof. Some airlines offer a cash advance for emergency expenses.

If your checked luggage or its contents get damaged beyond "normal wear and tear," the airline is generally responsible for repairing or replacing the bag, but compensation is at the airline's discretion. Liability limits are the same as those for lost bags.

Frequent-flyer programs

The DOT does not regulate airline frequent flyer programs. Generally, program rules are set by the airline and can be changed whenever the company chooses. If you're dissatisfied with a program you belong to, you should complain to the company.

Complaints

The DOT requires U.S. airlines to provide information on how to file a complaint with the company on its websites, on all e-ticket confirmations and upon request at ticket counters and gates. Written complaints must be acknowledged within 30 days and receive a substantive response within 60 days.

Complaints about airline service (not frequent flyer programs) can be submitted to the DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division online or by phone (202-366-2220/TTY: 202-366-0511).

If you can't get a satisfactory resolution by complaining to the airline, your other options include alerting the media, posting on social media, going to small claims court or, if you feel you have a strong case, filing a lawsuit.

Learn more about your rights (like flying with a service animal and what accommodations must be provided to passengers with disabilities) at the Department of Transportation's "Aviation Consumer Protection" webpage and at FlyersRights.org.

Top flyer complaints

According to DOT data, these are the top airline traveler complaints:

  1. Cancellations, delays, missed connections
  2. Baggage—lost, damaged or delayed luggage, charges for excess baggage, carry-on issues
  3. Reservation, ticketing and boarding problems
  4. Customer service—rude or unhelpful employees
  5. Refunds for unused or lost tickets, or fare adjustments
  6. Disability accommodations
  7. Overbooking
  8. Fares
  9. Other, including security, injury and frequent flier miles problems
  10. Discrimination

If your flight is delayed...

  • Stay alert for delay updates and gate changes. Setting up flight alerts on your mobile phone might mean you get notified ahead of the crowd and improve your chances of switching to another flight.
  • If the delay continues for more than three hours, ask the airline to rebook you.
  • While not required, airlines may rebook you at no charge. This often depends on how delayed the flight is and the reason for the delay (i.e., weather vs. mechanical problems). Airlines may also take into consideration that you had a connecting flight that you will miss.
  • Contact the airline by mobile app or phone to rebook rather than at the airline’s service desk, which can get overwhelmed quickly.
  • You should not be detained in the plane (“on the tarmac”) for more than three hours, or four hours for international flights.
  • Check your credit card for trip delay benefits. For details, visit http://bit.ly/2Dj6W8f. If you used the card to book the flight and the delay is extensive (12 hours), some cards still offer this benefit. Keep your original boarding pass and travel documents as proof.
  • Ask for meal and hotel vouchers if the flight is delayed significantly for non-weather-related problems.

If your flight is cancelled...

  • Calmly ask for immediate rebooking or a refund. You are entitled to be booked on the next available flight or receive a refund, even for non-refundable tickets. This policy is based on the airline’s contract with you. If it can’t rebook you on one of its own planes, ask if the airline might rebook you on another airline’s next flight.
  • Use the airline’s mobile app or call the customer service line to rebook most efficiently—customer service desks become quickly overwhelmed when flights are cancelled.
  • For better service, if you’re a frequent flier with the airline, let them know.
  • You may be eligible for meal or hotel vouchers. Some airlines will apply these accommodations to missed connections, but it varies by airline.

Comparing large online third-party booking sites

By Alegra Howard

Third-party travel booking sites are a popular way to quickly compare airfares among many (but not all) airlines. But is it worth using them to search and purchase the best airfare deal? We looked at some of the most popular sites—Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity—to see if their ease of use and search prowess made them a better option than booking directly through an airline.

Searches/results

When we began our research, we noticed that some of the travel sites looked alike—Expedia Group also owns Orbitz and Travelocity. The other major player in the online travel booking game is Priceline, which owns Booking.com and Kayak. (Since Booking.com's flight search function is powered by Kayak, we didn't compare its results.) While we typically found price to be the same or very close in flight search results for the three sites owned by Expedia Group, we saw that airfares varied between Priceline and Kayak. Google Flights, not covered here, also can be used to compare and purchase airfares from airlines. (See chart below for sample search results.)

The main benefits of these third-party sites: Their navigation is incredibly user friendly, they populate search results quickly by scanning hundreds of airfares and other third-party travel sites directly, and they offer airfare predictions based on destinations and the time of year you want to travel. If you're looking for the cheapest flight(s), these sites are helpful.

The search functions on all of the sites we reviewed were easy to use and very similar. An advanced search lets you select a preferred airline, non-stop flights or a refundable ticket. Trying to plan a trip with multiple stops was easy on all five websites. The flights on the results page show the best deals at the top, but you can sort your search by departure or arrival times, airline, the number of transfer stops and flight duration. Also, you can still earn miles if you enter your frequent flier number during booking.

Features

We liked that Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity gave a score to each flight it populates (1 to 10) based on amenities and overall flyer sentiment. Kayak provides advice at the top of your search results, explaining whether the prices populated for your trip are a good deal or you should wait a week for them to fall. A standout feature on Kayak is its Explore tool—perfect for the early stages of travel planning. Explore lets users plug in a starting airport and a range of potential travel dates and then populates a map of prices and destinations based on the price range you entered. Or enter "anywhere" as the destination in Kayak's initial flight search function on its homepage and find destinations ranked by price and flight length.

We found these sites to be transparent regarding restrictions and fees that may be associated with your flight (including baggage and change fees). Expedia, Kayak, Orbitz and Travelocity all disclosed airline fees upfront in the initial search results. Priceline only mentions that baggage fees may apply to your trip after you click on the flight to learn more. Clicking on "See baggage fee information" takes you to a general information page with contact information for the airlines—not so helpful.

While Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity provide general information about the airlines' range of baggage fees, Kayak's Fee Assistant tool allows you to view the price of the flights in the search results based on how many carry-on bags and checked bags you'll bring—changing the number of bags automatically updates the price of the flights.

If you booked your flight a while ago and forgot what extras you might be expected to pay for, Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity provide a fee breakdown when you click on your saved itinerary. (All the sites except Kayak allow you to view your trip itinerary without creating an account by using your email address and itinerary number. Kayak requires passengers to create an account in order to save and view itineraries purchased through the site.)

Another perk for loyal travelers: Expedia and Orbitz offer free rewards programs that allow users to redeem points toward discounts on flights, hotels and vacation packages when you book through their sites (similar to an airline's frequent flier program).

Price guarantees

Say you found a great fare but are hesitant to purchase the flight in case you miss out on a better deal elsewhere. Orbitz, Travelocity and Priceline offer "best price" guarantees, meaning the sites will refund you the difference if you book a flight with them and find it for less within 24 hours of booking. If you book an Express Deal on Priceline (a discounted but restricted trip that doesn't disclose the airlines or if you are on a direct flight prior to purchase and typically can't be changed), Priceline will refund you 200 percent of the difference up until midnight before you travel. The catch: The deals you find have to be available to the general public, be listed on an English-language booking website, and match exactly the itinerary you initially booked.

Seat selection

A downside of using these sites is the passenger seat selection capability. While we could view a seating chart and choose a seat on some routes we searched, this option wasn't always available.

On flights where seat selection was not available, we could choose a seat preference ("window," "aisle" or "any seat"), though your seat preference is not guaranteed and a follow-up call to the airline is needed to confirm whether you will be allowed to select a seat before check-in. Chances are that when you call you'll be told that you'll have to pay an extra fee to reserve a specific seat in advance.

Flight modifications

Priceline was the only site we reviewed that charged a modification fee ($30) in addition to any airline change fee that may apply. Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity do not charge fees for changing reservations. However, you will be subject to airline change fees.

As we mentioned, passengers can cancel their flight within 24 hours of booking and receive a full refund, as long as it's one week before the trip, regardless of what site is used. If you book through Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline or Travelocity, you'll be able to change or cancel your trip by calling their customer service lines or by clicking on your saved itinerary (Orbitz: 844-803-5577; Expedia: 866-316-0357; Travelocity: 855-857-9089; Priceline: 877-477-5807).

You'll be shown any applicable cancellation fees that may be applied by the airlines before you cancel. You can find an article that breaks down change fees below.

Some tickets cannot be modified online—you may have to contact the airline directly (as is the case with all Frontier and Spirit flights). Kayak is the only site that does not handle flight modifications and requires you to call the airline or company you booked with directly to revise your reservation.

While third-party travel sites are helpful in the hunt for cheap flights, the sites' customer service capabilities might feel like a second-best alternative to booking with the airline directly when travel plans get hectic.

We've heard repeatedly that if travelers incur any issues, such as a flight cancellation, overbooking or delay, dealing directly with the airline can make solving the problem easier if you booked the flight with them directly.

When you book through a third-party site, you're more likely to get the runaround from both the airline ("deal with Expedia!") and the booking site ("deal directly with your airline!"). However, if you are an easy-going traveler who isn't intent on choosing your exact seat, and you aren't worried about the inconveniences associated with flight interruptions or delays, using a third-party travel site can help you book your next trip for less.

Comparison of three sample trips using online travel booking sites

Airline Cheapest trip Second cheapest trip Third cheapest trip Restricted bargain fare
San Francisco (SFO) to Los Cabos, Mexico (SJD)
Expedia $512 using Alaska $521 using multiple carriers $521 using Delta $506
Orbitz $461 using Aeromexico $466.27 using United $466 using Alaska not offered
Travelocity $512 using Alaska $521 using multiple carriers $521 using Aeromexico $506
Kayak $504 using multiple carriers $529 using Alaska $584 using Alaska and United not offered
Priceline $457 using Alaska and United $457 using American $461 using American $445
Seattle (SEA) to Atlanta (ATL)
Expedia $400 using jetBlue $413 using American $413 using American N/A
Orbitz $399.38 using jetBlue $412.61 using American $412.61 using American N/A
Travelocity $400 using jetBlue $413 using American $413 using American N/A
Kayak $344 using multiple carriers $475 using Alaska $480 using Delta N/A
Priceline $405 using jetBlue and American $406 using jetBlue and Alaska $411 using jetBlue and Delta $352
New York City (JFK) to Las Vegas (LAS)
Expedia $479 using Alaska $488 using jetBlue $491 using American N/A
Orbitz $479 using Alaska $487 using jetBlue $490.70 using American N/A
Travelocity $479 using Alaska $488 using jetBlue $491 using American N/A
Kayak $431 using jetBlue and American $496 using Alaska and Delta $540 using Alaska and jetBlue N/A
Priceline $371 using American $433 using American and Alaska $434 using American N/A
Notes: All searches had the following parameters: Round-trip, one adult, flight only, all available airlines, economy fare, departure date 9/20/2018, return date 9/30/2018. Multiple carriers means that the fare is available on three or more airlines. Searches done on 8/31/18, within 10 minutes of each other per itinerary. Consumer Action’s findings may not be used for commercial purposes.

 

Flyers' rights in the EU and Canada

By Lauren Hall

The European Union (EU) offers the strongest and most comprehensive flyers bill of rights in the world. If your flight (with any airline) departs from any of the 28 member countries of the EU, you're protected by its rules, which govern compensation and assistance if you are denied boarding or your flight is delayed or cancelled.

You're also covered if your flight arrives in the EU from outside of an EU country, but only if that flight is operated by an EU airline. Here is what you are entitled to:

Delays. Under EU regulation 261/2004, if your flight is more than three hours late in getting to its destination, you're entitled to receive up to 600 euros (approximately $700) in compensation, depending on the distance of your flight (longer flights and delays mean greater compensation). You'll receive:

  • 250 euros ($291) for a flight of 1,500 km (932 miles) or less;
  • 400 euros ($465) for a flight that was more than 1,500 km within the EU (or between 1,500 and 3,500 km outside of it); and
  • 600 euros for flights over 3,500 km (2,175 miles).

You're also entitled to receive compensation for a "reasonably priced" meal and up to two telephone calls if your flight was delayed for up to five hours. Flights delayed for more than five hours qualify for reimbursement for the full price of that leg of the flight. Flyers can also opt to take a flight the next day and get reimbursement for a meal, two phone calls, a hotel stay and transportation to and from the hotel.

If your international flight delay results in "damage" (interpreted as "financial loss") to you or your baggage, the EU (and nearly 100 other countries) have signed on to an international agreement known as the Montreal Convention, which mandates that airlines be responsible for up to approximately $5,500 in damages unless they can prove they took all "reasonably required" measures to avoid them. For example, you may be compensated if you can prove (to the airline) that you had to pay for a hotel room or replace an item that did not arrive on time. So, keep receipts.

Cancellations. If your flight is cancelled, you have the option to take another flight (with the same airline), or cancel the flight and receive a full refund. EU rules also dictate that the airlines must pay or reimburse you for meals, a reasonably priced hotel (if necessary) while you wait for a new flight, and transportation between your lodging and the airport. The same compensation rates based on the distance of travel apply.

Airlines can only reject your delay or cancellation claim in the event of "extraordinary circumstances," such as strikes or security risks, so chances are good that if you file a claim with an airline operated in the EU, you'll receive full compensation under EU law. If an airline argues "extraordinary circumstances," know that you can challenge its assertion (except for weather issues) since the onus is on the carrier to prove that it could not have reasonably avoided a delay or cancellation.

Baggage claims. The European Union follows the Montreal Convention to compensate travelers for lost or destroyed baggage. This international set of worldwide standards sets minimum liability limits for passengers and luggage. If you can prove that you suffered financial losses due to the delay in delivering your baggage or due to its loss or destruction, you are eligible for up to the equivalent of approximately $1,600 U.S. dollars.

Who is responsible?

Under EU rules, departures and returns are considered two separate flights—even if those flights were booked in one reservation. What's more, only the airline that operates the flight can be held responsible for any issues that arise. That airline may not be the same as the one from which you bought your ticket.

Canada

Countries outside of the EU, like Canada, currently lack laws specifically addressing most airline passenger rights. Sometimes airlines will provide meal, taxi or hotel vouchers. As one of the 120 countries that participate in the Montreal Convention, Canada expects airlines to follow the Convention's rules to determine an airline's liability level on international flights.

As for delayed or cancelled flights, airlines in Canada are not required to provide compensation to passengers, although some have agreed to abide by government guidelines proposed in a voluntary code of conduct called "Flight Rights Canada."

Specifically, Canada's largest carriers—Air Canada, WestJet and Air Transat—agreed to address flight and tarmac delays, cancellations, overbooking, and lost or damaged luggage through the guidelines. If you find yourself facing delays or cancellations on your flight with one of these airlines, you should cite Flight Rights Canada's policies. Though each airline addresses the policies differently, all have agreed to find seats for passengers or refund tickets in the event of overbooked or cancelled flights. They also are supposed to provide meal vouchers for delays exceeding four hours and hotel accommodations for delays of more than eight hours.

Fortunately, Canada's patchwork of laws is likely to become more uniform soon. In May, the Canadian government finalized its Transportation Modernization Act.

The new law gives the government's Canadian Transportation Agency the ability to develop rules mandating the airlines' obligations to their passengers flying to, from and within Canada (including on connecting flights).

The agency is currently seeking input from carriers and the public to create an air passenger bill of rights. Until these rights are codified, if you have an issue with a Canadian airline that has not adopted "Flight Rights Canada" guidelines or has refused to compensate you, contact Canada's Air Passenger Rights organization for help or file a complaint with the Canadian Transportation Agency. Learn more at Canada's Air Passenger Rights webpage.

If you're flying out of a country that doesn't specifically mandate strong flyers' rights, you may still have some established rights if that country is a member of the Montreal Convention.

Signed in 2003 by countries ranging from Madagascar to the U.S., EU and Canada, it's used to beef up or fill the gaps in countries' existing laws. The Convention covers passengers on international flights between the nations that honor it, and provides compensation for "flight disruptions."

Most countries with major airlines are members, with a few exceptions (e.g., Sri Lanka and Vietnam). The website AirHelp.com explains how you can get reimbursed for unforeseen expenses. AirHelp outlines the compensation for international flight disruptions in general and EU flight delays.

The Montreal Convention also provides protection for damaged or delayed bags and lost luggage.

Specifically, the Montreal Convention declares the airline "liable for damage occasioned by delay" unless the airline can prove that it "took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid" damages.

The Convention also sets damages for lost or destroyed luggage based on individual pieces, and requires airlines to pay travelers for expenses due to misplaced luggage. You will, of course, need to save your receipts to claim reimbursement.

Important! Your passenger rights are dictated by the rules of the country you're departing from first and foremost (not where you bought your ticket), and then by the airline you are using.

Contracts of carriage

If you're flying out of a country that's not covered by EU regulations, the Montreal Convention or airline passenger rights created by that country's government, and you're unsure what (if any) rights you have, look to the airline that you're flying with.

Airlines are required to list passenger rights in what they call "contracts of carriage" or "tariffs." These documents contain the airlines' terms and conditions related to denied boarding, delays, cancellations, etc. The policies vary by airline.

If passengers fly out of the U.S., for instance, and connect to an airline operating only in the country they've arrived in, flyer rights on that airline will be based on that country's laws, and the airline's contract. In some cases, disrupted flights outside of the EU may still be eligible for compensation under EU regulations. AirHelp offers an easy online tool that assists you in determining if your connecting flights are covered.

The amount of time that flyers have to claim compensation for flight delays or cancellations depends on the country where the event took place.

Ireland, England and Wales accept claims for six years, and Scotland, for five years. You can check your claims eligibility through AirHelp.com.

Be aware: When we tested their service, AirHelp required access to your email account in order to provide you with specific refund information. Be sure you are willing to provide this much access before consenting.

Whether your travel is international or domestic, do some research to find out what regional laws govern your rights, ask questions and check the airline's website for its carrier rules.

Airline fees are heavy baggage for flyers

By Alegra Howard

These days, air travel means being nickel-and-dimed for everything: checking a bag, selecting a seat, even boarding the plane early. The in-person pleasantries once reserved for cherished customers might now be available with a surcharge—whether it’s checking in with an agent or deciding to check your bag the same day as your flight. Here are the fees you may encounter when booking your flight, along with a few tips on how to avoid them.

Changes and cancellations

In anyone’s life, things can crop up that make it necessary to change travel plans, or cancel them altogether. If you book a ticket more than a week ahead of the flight and cancel within 24 hours of booking, you’ll get a full refund. However, if your flight is less than a week away, you’ll probably be looking at a fee for changing or cancelling it.

The most expensive change fees we found were at the big airlines: American, Delta and United. All three charge a hefty $200 change fee for domestic flights (and upwards of $500 for international flight changes). However, if you make a change the same day as you fly on American or United, it’s not as bad—same-day flight changes cost $75 on United and $75-$150 on American, depending on the route. Alaska Airlines charges $125 for flight modifications, or $25-$50 if you make same-day changes.

The discount airlines are a bit better: Spirit Airlines charges $90 for flight modifications made online, or $100 when you make them at the airport. Frontier charges $99 for changes, but only $75 for Frontier Elite members. JetBlue was the only airline we found that bases its change fees on the amount you paid for the flight: A $200 fee is charged for fares $200 and up, as well as on its branded “Mint” fares. It costs $150 to change tickets that cost $150-$199, $100 for fares up to $149.99, and $75 for fares up to $99.99. For JetBlue’s “Blue Flex” fares, there’s no fee to change or cancel your flight.

The airline with the best deal on change fees is Southwest—there’s no fee to change or cancel your flight.

The other way to avoid change fees: Be a loyal customer. We found that Alaska, Delta and JetBlue all waive change fees for some members of their frequent flier programs—depending on your status. Fees are not waived for every level of frequent flier membership; they are usually reserved for those with a higher status (so call the airline to see if you qualify). Frontier Airlines offers free changes to frequent fliers if the changes are made eight or more days before the flight. If you purchased Frontier’s “The WORKS” bundling option when you booked your ticket (an extra $49 to $69 each way for direct flights, and $57 to $83 each way for connecting flights), you’ll enjoy free flight changes.

Checked luggage and carry-on bags

Many airlines charge to check luggage. If packing light isn’t an option, it may be cheaper to pay for your checked bag(s) at the time you book your ticket rather than later.

Frontier and Spirit Airlines reward those who pay for checked bags online when booking their ticket by charging $25-$30 for the first bag, $40-$45 for the second and $80-$85 for the third. If you wait until after you book, but more than 24 hours before your departure, the fees increase to $38-$40 for the first bag, $45-$50 for the second and $80-$95 for the third. Same day checked-bag charges are even higher, at $45-$50 for bag one, $50-$60 for bag two, and $85-$100 for bag three.

JetBlue announced a checked-bag fee increase in August—it now charges $30 for your first checked bag, $40 for your second, and $150 for the third. (If you grab a “Blue Plus” or “Blue Flex” fare, you’ll get up to two checked bags for free.) American, Delta and United have recently raised their bag fees to match JetBlue’s. Alaska Airlines still charges $25 each for your first and second checked bags, and $75 for your third.

The standout: Southwest Airlines, which allows passengers to check two bags for free as part of the cost of the flight. A third bag on Southwest will cost $75.

If you book on budget airlines Spirit or Frontier, “personal items” (a bag small enough to be placed under the seat in front of you) still are free. However, a carry-on bag will cost you. The baggage fees for Spirit and Frontier are lower if you pay for them at the time you book rather than at the gate. Spirit’s carry-on fees range from to $37 to $65 per bag. At Frontier Airlines, they range from $30 to $60 per bag (fees are waived for customers who purchased the WORKS fare).

While American and Delta Airlines allow free carry-on bags with their Basic Economy fares, United charges $25 to carry on a bag if you purchase its Basic Economy fare.

Traveling with a group? Spirit Airlines offers a $9 Fare Club, which has a $59.95 initial fee and an automatically renewing fee of $69.95 annually. In addition to periodically being offered discounted fares, you will receive a $9 discount on any checked or carry-on bag you pay for online in advance of arriving at the airport. The discount applies to up to eight companions traveling with you. Do the math—you might save more than the membership fee if you travel frequently or with others.

Seat selection, priority boarding and early check-in

Most of us like to know where we’re sitting in advance and to board the plane early to ensure a spot for our carry-on bag. But, at what cost?

While the leader of the no-fee pack, Southwest Airlines, does not offer upgraded seating or pre-flight seat assignments (seating is chosen on a first-board, first-sit basis), passengers who would like priority boarding can purchase the option to check in to their flight even earlier than 24 hours in advance and secure the airline’s coveted “A” boarding group—usually the first 60 people to choose their seats on the plane. Depending on the popularity of the route, early check-in fees range from $15 to $25 (free for members of its “A List” frequent flier program).

All of the airlines we reviewed except for Southwest offer upgraded seats that are larger, have more leg room, are located in bulkhead or exit rows, and often come with other perks like priority boarding.

  • American's preferred seat fees range from $4 to $139 each way, depending on the flight, and its Main Cabin Extra seat (between $20 and $280) provides passengers with five more inches of leg room, early boarding, free access to in-flight entertainment and complimentary wine, beer, spirits and snacks.
  • Delta Comfort+ is Delta’s economy alternative upgrade, which offers seats with four more inches of legroom and dedicated overhead bin space. Comfort+ passengers also receive priority boarding, along with free Wi-Fi and access to in-flight entertainment, wine, beer, spirits and snacks. Of the five flights we compared, the average Comfort+ ticket cost was around $151 more than the main (economy) fare.
  • Frontier's preferred seating includes seats in the exit and bulkhead rows, and its “stretch seating” provides up to seven extra inches of legroom at an added cost of between $6-$25.
  • JetBlue’s Even More Space seats provide wider seats with six additional inches of legroom, and priority boarding. The fee for these seats start at $10, but through our own search, we found fees starting at $16 and as high as $88 (window and aisle seats cost more than middle seats, and seats in the front of the plane cost more than those located in the exit row).
  • Spirit’s Big Front Seats also are wider than economy seats, come with an additional six inches of legroom and cost an additional $12-$175 (also depending on the route and whether you book the seats in advance).

Don’t want to pay extra to board early or for premium seats? Look for Basic Economy fares from the big airlines or on discount airlines that automatically assign you a seat at check-in for free (the downside being that you likely won’t be able to choose your seat when booking the discounted fare).

Except for bare bones (Basic Economy) fares, all eight of the airlines we reviewed waive baggage fees, offer premium seat selection and/or priority boarding at no charge to passengers buying from the airlines’ websites who are frequent flier members and/or airline-branded credit card holders (so make sure to log in to your frequent flier account to book your tickets). Depending on your membership level or the card you have, you may be upgraded to larger seats or even the class above economy when you check in.

Booking with a carrier agent

It might cost you to make a reservation over the phone rather than online. American and United Airlines charge $25 to book through a representative over the phone, while Alaska charges $15. Live close to the airport? You’ll save by booking in person with Spirit Airlines. The airline charges a Passenger Usage fee between $8.99 and $19.99—each way—if you book online or over the phone, but it’s free to book at the airport (you’ll have to weigh the gas and parking costs associated with the trip). If you do book over the phone with Spirit, there's an additional $35 Reservation Center Booking fee on top of that. Frontier Airlines also charges a $10 fee per passenger to book reservations over the phone, but waives the fee for Miles Elite members.

The bottom line on fees: While discount airlines may offer lower-priced fares, be sure to tally all the fees before booking, and consider how much baggage you’ll be taking, whether you’ll need a bigger seat and if priority boarding is important to you. These extras could take a bite out of your travel budget. When flying discount airlines or purchasing discounted fares, save on excess baggage fees by paying for your baggage when you book your reservation.

Other airline passenger rights in limbo

By Ruth Susswein

Airlines’ calls for deregulation have an eager audience these days. Like other federal agencies under today’s administration, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been reviewing and stalling airline industry rules to see where it can reduce “onerous regulatory burdens.” These include time limits on the tarmac, fee disclosures, data collection for consumer protection and scores more.

Last spring, a new rule to help guide disabled passengers to the most wheelchair-friendly airlines was delayed and ultimately frozen (until at least January 2019) without notice or public input. Airlines were to track how many wheelchairs and motorized scooters they transport monthly and report how many arrived broken or damaged. This Obama-era rule was intended to empower disabled passengers to better choose which airlines to do business with. The Paralyzed Veterans of America has filed suit against the DOT for postponing this rule, possibly permanently. The group argues that the Trump administration caved to airline industry pressure.

The DOT is reviewing other airline-related regulations, such as the tarmac rule, which, since 2009, has required airlines to allow passengers to deplane if they are stuck in an airplane for more than three hours (on domestic flights, four on international flights). Airlines want to add exceptions to the rule and to stop the clock when a pilot asks to return to the gate.

On some flights, it’s become more expensive for children to sit with their parents. Based on a lack of formal consumer complaints, the DOT has decided not to create new rules that would require young children to sit with their parents.

Fading fee disclosures

Until late last year, air travelers were expected to receive prompt disclosure of fees when booking a flight. At the first sight of fare and schedule information online, passengers were supposed to receive fee information for checked bags and carry-ons. The point was to make it easy for travelers to compare final costs based on a flight’s fare and fees.

Last December, the DOT withdrew its proposed rule to require disclosure of checked bag and carry-on fees early in the flight shopping process. (Fees must still be available somewhere on an airline’s website.)

The agency also abandoned a plan to track airlines’ ancillary fees (for extra leg room, seat upgrades, etc.) to learn how much money consumers were paying for these options. The DOT dropped its proposed rules under a Trump executive order for deregulation.

As part of a package of passenger rights, the DOT announced in 2016 that airlines would be required to issue refunds for baggage fees if you arrived but your luggage was “significantly delayed.” (Some airlines offer compensation for a several-hour delay; others do not.) “Significant delay” has not been defined by the DOT, but it means the difference between the airline owing you a baggage fee refund or not. Today, the DOT says it depends on the length of the delay and length of the flight, and makes these decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Airline policies

Given the uncertainty of air travel, passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled are advised to act quickly to find a replacement flight. Unfortunately, with today’s overbooked flights and lack of backup planes, you might wait hours, if not days, for a new flight and be responsible for your own hotel costs if you are stuck away from home. Airlines generally pay for hotels only if they are responsible for the cancellation—and only for non-local travelers.

Typically, the airline’s contract with you says it must resolve the problem when a flight is cancelled for reasons considered avoidable (mechanical issues, crew delays, etc.). Events out of the airline’s control (weather, strikes, fuel shortages, etc.) do not require the company to accommodate you.

The airline’s “contract of carriage” agreement spells out its policies. For example, Delta expects the traveler to request a refund or receive a rebooking on the next available flight. As part of its Customer Bill of Rights, JetBlue says it provides $75 to $250 credit toward future travel if a flight is delayed by three to six hours and the problem was within their control. Check TripSavvy’s site for various airlines’ policies.

Rating the airlines

According to a 2018 Consumer Reports survey, Southwest Airlines received top ratings from consumers for overall satisfaction with staff, check-in and cleanliness. Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, Virgin America and Hawaiian Airlines also are among the highest rated. The lowest rated airlines include Frontier, Spirit, United, American and Allegiant Airlines. Spirit and Frontier Airlines received low marks in all categories.

Another source—the Airline Quality Rating—calls Alaska Airlines, Delta and JetBlue the nation’s top three carriers. So far this year, Delta has the best on-time record and the fewest bumped passengers. Spirit has the worst on-time record and the most customer complaints. Frontier and Express Jet (a regional carrier for American, Delta and United) also are rated poorly.

FAA bill forgoes FAIR fees but offers some consumer protections

By Ruth Susswein

Legislation to “ground” airline fees was removed days before a vote in the U.S. Senate. However, flyers will be entitled to some commonsense standards.

The Forbid Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act would have required that airline fees—cancellation, flight change, seat selection and bag fees—be reasonable, proportional and based on the cost of providing the service. Consumer Action has strongly supported the provision and, along with other advocates, has urged the Senate to pass it.

The FAIR Fees provision introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also would have mandated that airline fees be disclosed early in the ticket buying process so they don’t come as a surprise once you purchase your ticket or check your luggage.

Types and amounts of fees vary by air carrier, but have been on the rise for several years.

The Fair Fees provision included in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill (S. 1405) would have directed the FAA to create standards to assess whether airline fees were reasonable and proportional to costs.

While airlines have claimed that the unbundling of fees has reduced the cost of flying, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that fares have actually increased once additional costs for things like checked bags and reserved seats are included.

While FAIR fees are off the table, the bill will require that the FAA establish minimum standards for airplane seat size and ban cell phone conversations and e-cigarette use while flying. The bill will also ban airlines from bumping passengers who’ve already boarded, and require the Transportation Department to determine if weather was the primary factor in a flight’s delay or cancellation. It will demand fee refunds for services never received, ban storing live animals in an overhead bin, and allow strollers when flying with a small child. It will also create an aviation consumer advocate and require further rules for drones (unmanned aircraft).

Air traffic control not private—yet

This year’s FAA Reauthorization bill, currently before the Senate, does not include privatization of the nation’s federal air traffic control system. Nonetheless, privatization has its fans, not least among them President Donald Trump, who has endorsed taking the system out of the FAA’s hands.

The president based his support on a bill by Representative Bill Shuster (R-PA), chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Shuster’s goal was to privatize the system, but when he couldn’t muster enough support from his colleagues earlier this year, he abandoned the idea. His bill sought to shrink the size of government (and cut the federal payroll by 30,000 controllers, technicians and other employees) by turning air traffic control into a private, non-profit corporation. Opponents fear that a private system would favor busy airports, charge higher user fees, drive up the cost of flying, and relinquish billions in taxpayer-funded equipment to a private entity. Opponents also fear that airlines would pack the non-profit corporation’s board and have undue influence over its decisions. Instead, opponents argue, the answer is to modernize the system using a satellite, GPS-controlled operation. Consumer Action opposes privatizing the air traffic control system.

Travel Insurance: Is it really worth it?

By Ruth Susswein

Airline travelers face heavy pressure to purchase add-on travel insurance, mostly offered by two firms that dominate the industry. Is it worth it? Not really, according to a recent investigation by the office of Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), which uncovered that almost every major airline and popular online travel agencies are engaged in questionable travel insurance marketing practices for policies that offer minimal coverage and often erect hurdles to payment of claims.

The report concludes that:

  • Travel insurance coverage is mostly “bare-bones,” with an extensive list of exclusions.
  • The airlines and online travel sellers commonly overstate the flexibility of the coverage and bury significant limitations in the fine print.
  • Nearly all of the companies evaluated (15 of 16) actively require consumers to indicate whether they will purchase or decline coverage before purchasing a plane ticket.

While marketed as “total protection plans,” most policies are actually quite narrow and don’t cover: “any reason” changes in the insured’s travel plans; airline, cruise line or operator travel cancellations unless provided for elsewhere in the plan; or injury, illness or medical conditions if not disabling and confirmed by a doctor.

“The only thing skimpier than airplane legroom are these travel insurance plans,” said Sen. Markey. “Consumers are pressured to buy plans that promise extensive or even total coverage, but in reality offer very little [protection], leaving them without the security they thought they bought...”

Sen. Markey found that two companies, AIG Travel Guard and Allianz Global Assistance, provided 87 percent of policies offered. Airlines and online agencies earn an undisclosed commission for each policy sold.

The report recommends carefully combing through the coverage’s fine print before paying for an inadequate policy, and saving all receipts and cancellation notices to provide proof when filing a claim.

Linda Sherry of Consumer Action notes, “You have to be eagle-eyed when buying an airline ticket, because the box to buy travel insurance is sometimes pre-checked. Even if it’s not, sites throw up messages to make you second-guess yourself, using language like ‘Are you sure you don’t want to protect your investment?’ and asking you to check another box that says, ‘No, I’ll take the risk’ before you can move along. These are elements of carefully designed marketing to get you to reconsider and buy the coverage.”

The investigation analyzed the websites of nine major airlines and seven online travel agencies (OTAs): Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United, and CheapOair, Cheaptickets, Expedia, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline and Travelocity. (Southwest didn’t offer travel insurance.)

Read the report: Flyer Beware: Is Travel Insurance Worth It?

About Consumer Action

Consumer Action is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that has championed the rights of underrepresented consumers nationwide since 1971. Throughout its history, the organization has dedicated its resources to promoting financial and consumer literacy and advocating for consumer rights in both the media and before lawmakers to promote economic justice for all. With the resources and infrastructure to reach millions of consumers, Consumer Action is one of the most recognized, effective and trusted consumer organizations in the nation.

Consumer education. To empower consumers to assert their rights in the marketplace, Consumer Action provides a range of educational resources. The organization’s extensive library of free publications offers in-depth information on many topics related to personal money management, housing, insurance and privacy, while its hotline provides non-legal advice and referrals. At Consumer-Action.org, visitors have instant access to important consumer news, downloadable materials, an online “help desk,” the Take Action advocacy database and nine topic-specific subsites. Consumer Action also publishes unbiased surveys of financial and consumer services that expose excessive prices and anti-consumer practices to help consumers make informed buying choices and elicit change from big business.

Community outreach. With a special focus on serving low- and moderate-income and limited-English-speaking consumers, Consumer Action maintains strong ties to a national network of nearly 7,000 community-based organizations. Outreach services include training and free mailings of financial and consumer education materials in many languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. Consumer Action’s network is the largest and most diverse of its kind.

Advocacy. Consumer Action is deeply committed to ensuring that underrepresented consumers are represented in the national media and in front of lawmakers. The organization promotes pro-consumer policy, regulation and legislation by taking positions on dozens of bills at the state and national levels and submitting comments and testimony on a host of consumer protection issues. Additionally, its diverse staff provides the media with expert commentary on key consumer issues supported by solid data and victim testimony.

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Airline passenger rights (Fall 2018)   (CANews_flyers-rights-2018.pdf)

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