What do airlines owe you when you're stranded?

This particular thorn in my side has been itching for a while, and since I found some information on it, I thought it might be worth a look for those of you who travel regularly. I’ve had to fly a lot, mostly for business reasons, over the last two years in particular. While the majority of the flights have been mostly okay in terms of getting there in one piece and relatively on time (aside from the ubiquitous cramped conditions, lousy food and long lines), I seem to have had more than my fair share where things just went entirely pear shaped in terms of scheduling or logistics. Just in the month of June I had two back to back trips – one returning home from business and the next flying out to see relatives – where I arrived at my destination 27 hours and 13 hours later than planned respectively.

Both times the airlines made other arrangements for me on different flights and I wasn’t charged extra for the replacement tickets, but was I entitled to more for the delays? A recent study from CBS News indicates I might have been. They cover a number of scenarios, but being “bumped” from an overbooked flight is a big one.

If you are bumped in this manner, Department of Transportation rules require that you be compensated, and the compensation is generous. Indeed, in 2011 the agency doubled the eligible compensation that involuntarily bumped passengers are entitled to receive. If the airline is able to get you to your domestic destination within two hours of the original arrival time, you are entitled to a cash refund of twice the cost of the one-way ticket to a maximum of $650.

If the involuntary bump lands you in your destination more than two hours late, you are due an amount equivalent to four times the cost of your ticket to a maximum of $1,300. The rule is the same for international flights, except that the DOT defines “short” international delays (which net up to $650) as those that get you to your destination within four hours of the original arrival time. Those that get you to an international destination more than four hours late entitle you to $1,300.

I can assure you that while the nice people at the Delta counter were very apologetic and quick to try to schedule a new flight, nobody mentioned that to me.

Another scenario involves lost luggage. On one of the aforementioned flights, I was supposed to go from Tennessee through Detroit to New York, all in a matter of about six hours on a Thursday afternoon / evening. I actually wound up getting in just before midnight on Friday. My bags, however, promptly found their way to (wait for it)… Philadelphia. At my destination, they assured me that the bags would be on the first flight the next morning and they would deliver them to my house. Since they had done this for me before with no problems, I wasn’t terribly concerned. But though the bags did make it into town, they were handed off to a third party private delivery service who finally showed up late Sunday morning. As it turned out, I had some prescription medicine in one of them – my fault entirely for not keeping it in my carry on – so it was a real inconvenience.

The airlines apparently don’t have to reimburse you very much for a delay in getting your luggage, but if they lose it they are supposed to pay you.

If, for instance, the airline delivered your luggage a day late, you could file a claim for the cost of replacing necessary toiletries and, perhaps, one clean outfit. On the other hand, if it was permanently lost or went missing long enough that you lost the use of your packed items for the entire trip, the airline may be on the hook for the replacement cost of everything in your bag. This would apply, for instance, to people who are going on a cruise and must depart before the bag catches up to them, Hobica said.

The maximum replacement value for luggage lost on a domestic flight is $3,300. The maximum claim for luggage lost on an international flight amounts to 1,131 in special drawing rights, which is worth roughly $1,730 in U.S. dollars.

Nobody mentioned this to me either when it happened. So, for what it’s worth, think of this as a bit of a public service reminder. If you run into your own travel nightmares with the airlines, you can at least be prepared to demand they pay up to the full extent of the rules.

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