[This article was written by Leigh Raper and originally appears in Avvo’s Naked Law Blog.]
With some of the busiest travel days of the year fast approaching, here’s a list of five things to do if you end up stuck at the airport:
1. Try to avoid it in the first place
We all head to the airport with high hopes of an on-time departure. That said, you can bolster that optimistic outlook with a little advance preparation. After all, the best flight delay is the one that never happens, and a bit of judicious planning can lower your chances of a delay. “Remember that a departure early in the day is less likely to be delayed than a later flight, due in part to the ‘ripple’ effects of delays throughout the day,” says the Department of Transportation, which also recommends making that early flight a nonstop. And do some homework: research on-time results for airports and flights—the DOT provides such data about the major US airlines.
2. Read the fine print
In addition to the on-time performance data, make sure you understand what, if anything, you are entitled to from your particular airline.
Delays and Cancellations: Airlines are not required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled. Each airline has its own customer service plan that outlines what they will or won’t do in the event of significant delays that are the result of circumstances within the airline’s control—things like mechanical or crew issues unrelated to weather. These plans are available on the airline’s website. For example, American Airlines will provide “reasonable overnight accommodations, subject to availability.” Under the same circumstances, Southwest Airline’s policy says, “Our Customer Service personnel have the authority to arrange for overnight lodging.”
Neither airline provides hotels when circumstances were beyond the airline’s control (most often this is weather). American “may be able to help you find accommodation” and Southwest “will do our best to assist you by securing a discounted rate.”
Oversold/Bumping: We all know that airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on any particular flight. If you get involuntarily bumped from a flight because it was oversold, federal law provides very specific protections. Department of Transportation rules require that you be given cash compensation equal to 200% of the value of your tickets (up to $650) if the airline can get you to your destination within a short period of time (generally one to two hours of your original arrival time; if the airline can get you there within an hour of your original arrival time, no cash is coming your way). If you encounter a significant delay, you are entitled to 400% the original value of the ticket, up to $1,300.
3. Keep everything
That means all of your boarding passes, itineraries, or bag tags. If you end up in a dispute after the fact, you will be happy that you hung on to these items if—as the DOT describes—you seek redress through small claims court. Airline fighting you because you were bumped but it claims you didn’t check in within the time limits listed in its Contract of Carriage? You’ll be happy you had that printout of your boarding pass showing you actually had one minute to spare! And if your claim is too big for small claims court and you’re going to court or arbitration, find a lawyer who understands transportation law to help.
4. Get on your phone
This is one of those tried and true tips that remains good advice. If you have a problem with your flight, odds are lots of other people at the airport are having similar problems. Skip the line and get on the phone. Either call the airline or use your smartphone to visit the airline’s website. Generally wait times will be significantly less than standing in line at the counter. Additionally, many things can be handled on the airline website or smartphone app, meaning you won’t have to wait in line at all.
5. Pack your patience
Holiday travel is busy and exhausting even if everything goes smoothly. Prepare for extra time at check-in and baggage claim. Give yourself plenty of time to make it through the TSA security checkpoints. If you do have a problem, try your best to remain calm and be polite. Remember those overnight accommodation policies, the ones where they “try their best” and “have the authority?” You can bet that the customer service representative or gate agent is going to help the calm, respectful passenger before they assist the loud, obnoxious hothead
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