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Your rights when a flight is delayed

Your rights when a flight is delayed
By: Laurie Berger
October 2, 2005

WHEN planes don't fly as promised, passengers often resort to pounding their fists rather than demanding their rights.


Travel Q&A recently advised readers to arm themselves with a copy of their airline's delay-and-cancellation policy when they fly ("When Airlines Will Compensate Fliers," Aug. 28, latimes.com/airlines). This policy is known as Rule 240, and it's one of the most important and misunderstood of all the terms in carriers' contracts of carriage.


We were subsequently flooded with mail from travelers who had trouble finding Rule 240 online or obtaining it from the airlines. This week's column is dedicated to answering questions (consolidated for space) about this policy.


Briefly, Rule 240 covers delays that are the airline's fault mechanical problems or schedule changes, for instance. Under this rule, the major carriers promise to book you on the next available flight at no extra charge, even if it means putting you on a competitor's plane in a higher class of service. They must also get you a hotel room as well as meals or ground transportation, or both, for overnight delays or for those exceeding four hours for diverted flights.


If they don't, invoke Rule 240. The best way to do this is to have a copy on hand.


Question: I searched for Rule 240 on the airlines' websites, as suggested, but couldn't find it. Any tips?


Answer: Many carriers have replaced the old Department of Transportation jargon with more descriptive terms "flight delays, cancellations" or "failure to provide service." This inconsistency makes it harder to find.


To shorten your hunt, we've created a list of links to airlines' contracts of carriage (latimes.com/contracts). You'll still have to slog through about 50 pages of fine print to find each carriers' Rule 240 or equivalent. (Tip: Scroll down toward the end of the document.)


Question: When I called the airlines about Rule 240, the agents didn't know what it was. How is that possible?


Answer: American, for one, says many of its agents are not familiar with the old lingo and advises travelers to ask specifically for flight-delay-and-cancellation information when calling.


Delta and United told us that their front-line personnel have multiple ways to look up airline policies in the reservation system, by name or rule number. "Some agents might need to be reminded of this," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski.

Question: The airlines refused to mail me a copy of Rule 240. Isn't that illegal?

Answer: The phone agent may have misinterpreted your request. Today's contracts of carriage, which include Rule 240, are a patchwork quilt of DOT regulations and carriers' own policies that confuse airline staffers as much as they do consumers.


Airlines must, however, provide at the very least, a summary of the contract (and its key terms) wherever tickets are sold or to anyone who asks for them, under DOT's Rule 253. That goes for mailing out free copies of the full contract upon request, and making review copies available for customers at ticket counters, city ticket offices and travel agencies.


If a carrier says it can't provide these hard copies or refers you to the version posted on its website, cite Rule 253.


And keep in mind, you can't be held liable for any fees, penalties or other restrictions if an airline did not properly disclose its contract terms. "Consumers can sue the carrier and recover damages, which in California Small Claims courts can total $5,000," said San Francisco-based travel attorney Al Anolik.


A few additional tips on contracts of carriage:


Know the difference between "agreements" and "contracts." In 1999, 12 airlines voluntarily filed "customer service agreements" with the DOT, addressing new passenger rights in the event of extensive delays. These are just part of the full contracts, which spell out all the rights and restrictions.


Hedges versus rights. Carriers often use the terms "may provide" or "when necessary" when describing compensation for airline-induced problems. These are possibilities, not legally binding privileges.


Check for updates. Carriers are not required to announce changes to their contracts of carriage. That's why it's so important to check their websites for revisions, the same way you would monitor phone and cable companies for unannounced rate increases. Southwest and Continental make it easy to tell when changes have been made; they list revision dates next to each contract term.


Complain. The DOT has received only five complaints regarding failure to provide contract of carriage information since 2002, according to agency representative Bill Mosley. But attorney Anolik says he has heard many more gripes on the topic and urges travelers to make their voices heard. (You can file a complaint at DOT's website, airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/problems.htm.) The agency will fine carriers if they repeatedly fail to provide these contracts to fliers. Anolik thinks, however, that carriers should be required to post notices at airline counters about the availability of these contracts alongside those for overbooking.


International versus domestic. The contracts of carriage discussed here apply only to domestic flights. Carriers are not required to automatically provide their terms and conditions for overseas flights, though they still must produce them on request.

Laurie Berger welcomes your questions but cannot respond to all of them. Send e-mail to travel@latimes.com or write to Travel Q&A, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Please include your name, city and phone number.