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Air Passengers Should Know Their Bill of Rights

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

What rights do you have if your plane is canceled or delayed, or is overbooked and you are bumped?

Most passengers either don’t know their rights or, in many cases, don’t know how to insist on protecting those rights.

Start with a canceled flight. If it is because of weather, air traffic delays or a mechanical problem, are you entitled to: (a) free hotel room; (b) free hotel room, meal and free phone call; (c) an immediate booking on the next available flight; (d) none of the above?

The answer, unfortunately, is (d). Airline schedules are not considered guarantees, and the cancellation and delay policies differ wildly between airlines.

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Actually, you are at the mercy of the gate agent and/or supervisor at the airport where the cancellation or delay occurs. I’ve been on some flights that have been delayed for two days, and the airline did nothing but make vague apologies.

Recently I was on a late-night United flight between Los Angeles and Chicago that was delayed an hour. After transferring us to another aircraft, flight attendants walked down the aisles distributing vouchers to mildly surprised passengers. The vouchers were each good for a $25 discount on any future United flight.

If your flight is delayed or canceled, you really have no choice but to become your own best negotiator with airline personnel. But always remember that the airline does not really owe you anything except a refund if you later decide not to take the flight.

Overseas, cancellations and delays can be even more horrendous for travelers. Scenes of hundreds of people sleeping on the floor at London’s Gatwick Airport during weather or labor problems are not unusual.

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However, if you did an impromptu survey and asked those poor souls how many were flying first-class, you’d come up empty. When a schedule or operational snafu develops overseas, an immediate caste system seems to be employed by foreign carriers.

If you’re flying first- or business-class, many foreign airlines will bend over backward to get you a hotel, a decent meal and calls home to loved ones or business associates--all at their expense.

‘Just Good Business’

“For us,” says one senior foreign airline executive, “it’s just good business. But if you fly on a discount ticket, well, you will probably just get what you paid for.”

What happens if you show up for a flight for which you have no reservation and are told by the counter agent that you have to go on standby for the flight?

If seats become available, is it really first-come, first-served for standby passengers?

Many travelers assume that if they check in early for standby seats on a flight that is sold out, they’ll get first shot at any open seat at departure time. Not always true. Again, there’s often a strict pecking order at many airlines.

Full-fare first-class passengers flying standby are boarded first, followed by full-fare coach passengers, followed by the next-highest fare-paying discount passenger.

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Some airlines even add an additional criteria for determining who gets any available seats. United, for example, often looks at whether or not the standby passenger is a member of its Mileage Plus program, and, if so, how many miles he or she has accrued.

But what about bumping? What rights do you have in that situation?

Lots. First, look at the numbers. The number of passengers bumped by airlines has been slowly declining. Last year American bumped just .05 passengers per 10,000; Pan Am bumped 9.75 per 10,000.

Matter of Habit

But there isn’t an airline I know that doesn’t overbook its flights as a matter of habit.

“The conundrum that we find ourselves in,” said David Hinson, chairman and chief executive of Midway Airlines, “is that there’s not a flight in our schedule, except maybe on Christmas Eve, when we don’t have significant no-shows.

“We also know, for example, that our MD-87 aircraft holds 133 people. We will often book it to 180 people, but it will push out of the gate with 110 people. Why? Duplicate reservations made on other carriers and a computer model we build for each flight history that indicates the probable no-show factor.

“Of course,” Hinson said, “every once in a while we guess wrong, or one of our competitors cancels. Then we have a problem.”

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When a flight is overbooked the U.S. Department of Transportation requires the offending airline, under a strictly enforced federal mandate, to ask for volunteers who might be willing to take another, later flight. In return for their efforts, the volunteers are then given a substantial reward--cash or a free ticket.

In recent years fewer and fewer airlines part with cash. Instead, they seem happier to part with vouchers for free flights at a later date.

But what if no volunteers can be found? What happens then, short of a riot?

‘Let’s Make a Deal’

It’s the airline version of “Let’s Make a Deal.” The gate agent will board the plane, announce that no volunteers--or not enough volunteers--have been found, and start the bidding to buy your seat from you. The bidding can be as low as $150 and as high as $2,000, depending upon the flight and its distance.

If you have been denied boarding (and you checked in for your flight within the airline’s rules, usually within 20 minutes before scheduled departure time), the airline is responsible for getting you to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time. If they can accomplish this (and almost always, they can’t), then they are not responsible for providing any additional compensation.

But if your arrival time is between one and two hours late, the airline is obligated to pay you an amount equal to the one-way price of your ticket (with a minimum of $200). If your arrival will be more than two hours late, the required compensation is twice the price of the one-way ticket (maximum $400). More often than not, you get to keep your original ticket, which can either be used later or refunded.

Of course, one logical piece of advice, if you want to avoid getting bumped, is to check in early for your flight.

But then there are some folks who look forward to getting bumped. These people have no intention of taking the flight for which they are booked. They are at the airport with one purpose: to get “denied boarding compensation.”

Odds on Overbooking

“These people know that the odds of overbooking on certain high-density flights is great,” Hinson said. “We had one flight on Friday afternoon to La Guardia in New York City and every week the same four guys would walk up to the gate, tickets and seat assignments in hand, just before the final boarding call was made.

“Of course, by that time all the seats had been given away, and we had to provide compensation. But after about the fifth week we figured it out and broke up the scam.”

The same denied-boarding scam was tried--successfully--for quite some time on Detroit-New York City and New York City-Cleveland flights on American and United.

Perhaps the best part of that deal is that with many airlines your denied-boarding compensation is often given in the form of a free ticket, and that ticket is transferable.


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