Your family is headed to Walt Disney World for a long-anticipated vacation, and something goes wrong with the trip.
Maybe the flight was delayed and then canceled. Or you were involuntarily "bumped" because of an overbooked plane. Or you sat on the tarmac in a thunderstorm. Or the airline lost your luggage.
What are your rights as passengers?
The U.S. government mandates very few air-travel protections, other than compensation for being booted involuntarily off a plane — think passenger David Dao, who was dragged from his seat by airport police in Chicago in April.
Also, by federal law, airlines cannot keep you stranded in a plane on the tarmac for more than three hours without returning the aircraft to the gate — and within two hours of a tarmac delay, passengers must be offered food and drink.
"The government also says the airline owes you if it loses your checked baggage, with a limit of roughly $3,000," said Ed Perkins, seasoned traveler and writer for Smarter Travel. "The definitions on that are pretty loose."
Beyond those mandates, what you get depends on the individual airlines' "contracts of carriage," which vary from one company to another.
No federal law or regulation outlines what rights, if any, you have when your flight is canceled.
"The only thing you can do if your flight is excessively delayed, or canceled, is demand what's called an involuntarily refund," said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, a nonprofit airline consumer group. "And then take that money and use it on alternate transportation."
Do airlines have to give you a refund if there's been a long delay?
"They do, but they won't tell you," said Hudson, a lawyer. "They'll try to give you a coupon, and ask you to come back later, or the next day."
In 2014, Hudson was flying from Florida to John F. Kennedy airport in New York to catch a flight to Europe. He booked the first JetBlue flight of the day, an early flight. It was canceled. "They were handing out coupons, saying, 'Come back, we're sorry.' I said, 'No, I want the refund.' Also, they wouldn't let me use my ticket on another airline."
Hudson said he paid more for a last-minute ticket on another airline and flew to New York's LaGuardia airport, where he jumped in a cab and "just made my flight. The alternative was: I would have lost everything."
Since airline-industry deregulation in 1978, reciprocity among carriers, which allowed you to take your ticket and fly on a competitor that had a vacant seat, is gone.
Hudson's group has filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Transportation to reinstate the reciprocity rule, sometimes referred to as "interline" agreements among airlines. "You can still ask for that, and if you have a high frequent-flier status, you might get it," he said. "But it's not a right."
Flyers Rights also filed a lawsuit appealing the Federal Aviation Administration's refusal to set seat-size standards, and recently won allies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which told the FAA to reconsider whether airline seat size and leg-room space should be regulated. "This is the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat," one judge on the panel wrote.
On most airlines, if a flight is delayed for more than three hours or rescheduled, "one right you have absolutely is a refund even on a nonrefundable ticket," said Perkins, of Smarter Travel.
"You can take that in the form that you paid, either a credit card or cash," he said. "You are free then to work out whatever Plan B appeals to you: trying to buy a ticket on another airline, going to Hertz and renting a one-way car, or going home and starting over again in a couple days."
Jeffrey Erlbaum, president of ETA Travel in Conshohocken, differentiates between two types of delays. With weather and air-traffic control delays, airlines have limited responsibility. They have to put you on the next available flight, but with planes flying full that might not be for a couple of days.
Other delays caused by mechanical problems or crew issues are deemed within the control of the airline. After a certain length of time, "they are supposed to feed you, they are supposed to put you up in a hotel," Erlbaum said. "If the flight is canceled, you are entitled to a refund no matter what. But again, if you are trying to get to where you are going, you may not want a refund because you want them to put you on another flight."
One positive trend, travel advisers say, is the airlines in the last couple years have been more proactive about canceling flights and rebooking passengers in the event of anticipated bad weather.
"In the old days, they wouldn't give you that flexibility," Erlbaum said. "You'd have to show up at the airport and wait for your flight to be canceled before you could make any changes. Now they are much better, and much more proactive."
The Department of Transportation offers "A consumer guide to air travel" on its website. The agency cautions that "airlines don't guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip."
The agency advises those traveling for important business trips, family events, or cruises to allow extra time and take earlier flights: "Airline delays aren't unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea."
Other advice: Book flights early in the day to avoid the "ripple" effect of delays building throughout the day. Because a plane change could result in a "possible misconnection," choose to connect on flights in less-congested airports and areas with less harsh weather.
"Have a Plan B. With 20 percent to 30 percent of flights now delayed, and up to 1 percent or more canceled, you cannot count that you are going to get to where you want to be within even a couple days sometimes," said Hudson, who has worked for air-travel rights since the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988. His daughter was among the 243 passengers killed on the flight from Frankfurt that stopped in London.
"The typical airline contract language says, 'We may at our discretion put you on another airline,' " Perkins said. "It doesn't say, 'We will put you on another airline.' Under those circumstances, get on your phone or device, and if you can find a seat on some other airline, go to your airline and say, 'Look, there is a seat on United, leaving in two hours, will you please transfer me to that?'
"Figure it out yourself and go to the airline with what you'd like to do. It's easier for them to say 'yes' to a solution, than it is to say 'yes' to a problem. There is no guarantee, but that's something I would certainly do."
Flyers Rights has a toll-free hotline, 877-359-3776 (877-FLYERS6), with a staff that deals with individual passenger problems. "It's not instantaneous, but within a few hours to a day, we'll get responses," Hudson said. "We have contacts to the higher-ups at the airlines that you don't get by calling their normal customer-service numbers."
• If you are involuntarily bumped or removed from a flight due to overbooking, the airline owes you compensation if it can't get you to your destination within one to two hours of the scheduled arrival on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international trip. The compensation is 200 percent of the one-way fare to your destination, up to $650. If the airline can't make these time requirements, it owes you 400 percent of the fare, up to $1,300.
• If your flight is canceled, substantially delayed, or rescheduled, you have the right to a full refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket. Airline polices vary about what constitutes a "substantial" delay.
• Federal rules mandate an airline cannot keep you in a plane on the tarmac more than three hours on a domestic flight, or four hours on an international flight, without returning the aircraft to the gate and letting passengers get off. Airlines are obligated to provide food and water within two hours of a tarmac delay.
• For delayed, lost, or damaged checked bags on domestic trips, the airline's liability limit is $3,500 per passenger.