With a debacle at Southwest Airlines leading to more than 3,000 flights canceled on Christmas day, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s computer outage leading to more than 1,300 flights canceled (and 10,000 delayed in the U.S. on Wednesday), it feels like an on-time flight is an increasing rarity. Clearly, you want to be prepared to fight for what you’re entitled to when an airline, for lack of a better phrase, utterly screws you over. Here’s what to know about the fine print so you can always get the most money possible from a canceled or delayed flight.
What’s in the fine print for most airlines
Lawyer Erika Kullberg has gained a huge following on TikTok for her videos that point out airlines’ legal requirements you probably don’t know about. (Every video ends with the line “Erika reads the fine print so I don’t have to!”) In this video posted in September 2022, Kullberg explains the updated terms of major airlines like American, Delta, and Southwest. Some of these updated terms include the fact that an overnight delay on your flight means you’re legally entitled to complimentary hotel accommodations and transport to and from the hotel. And in this video response to the Southwest cancelations over Christmas, Kullberg educates fliers with language directly from the Department of Transportation Flight Delays & Cancellations.
By far the most useful, up-to-date resource for what you’re entitled to is the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Airline Customer Service Dashboard. Follow this link to check out a grid of the major U.S. airlines and which services they’ve promised to provide should there be a “controllable” flight cancelation or delay. What counts as controllable includes maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading, fueling, and other delays caused by the airline itself.
How much can you get from a delayed flight?
As we covered earlier this week, when it comes to reimbursement for delays, the amount depends on the difference between the new arrival time and your original itinerary:
- 1 hour or less: no compensation
- 1 to 2 hours (1 to 4 hours on international travel): a minimum of 200% of your original one-way fare or $775, whichever is lower
- 2 hours or more (4 hours or more internationally): a minimum of 400% of your original one-way fare or $1,550, whichever is lower
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If you paid using frequent flier miles, the compensation is based on the lowest amount paid for a similar ticket on your flight.
When are you entitled to a full refund?
Unfortunately, according to DOT, there are no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are simply delayed. However, if your flight is fully canceled and “you choose to cancel your trip as a result, you are entitled to a refund for the unused transportation—even for non-refundable tickets. You are also entitled to a refund for any bag fee that you paid, and any extras you may have purchased, such as a seat assignment.”
Every airline has its own policies, but for the most part, here are the situations when you are entitled to a refund of the ticket price (all pulled from the Department of Transportation):
- Canceled flight. If the airline canceled a flight, regardless of the reason, and you choose not to travel, you’re entitled to a refund
- Schedule change with significant delay. Unfortunately, there’s no official definition for what constitutes a “significant delay.” Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors, including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances.
- Class of service change. If you purchased a first-class ticket and got downgraded to economy class due to an aircraft swap, you’re owed the difference in fares.
- Baggage fees. Whenever your baggage is declared lost by the airline, you’re entitled to a refund of your baggage fees. Of course, airlines may have different policies to determine when a bag is officially lost. Most airlines will declare a bag lost between five and fourteen days after the flight, but this can vary from one airline to another.
The airline must also refund charges for seat selection, checked bags, and other add-ons if you do not receive those services on your trip. Finally, if you purchased fully refundable tickets, you are entitled to a full refund if you don’t use the ticket, regardless of your circumstances.
Don’t automatically accept that voucher
While some airlines may offer tickets or vouchers for those involuntarily bumped, you have the right to request a check for cash instead. The likelihood you’ll receive one depends on the circumstances around your reason for cancelation as well as the airline’s policies. Still, double-checking with a customer service representative could reap cash rewards. On that note, if you do need to connect with a real human, here’s our guide to navigating an airline’s phone lines. As a last resort, you can take to social media to publicly complain in the hopes that a representative will finally respond to you.
And finally, here’s our guide to the airline passenger rights everyone should know.