No matter if you’re a leisure or business traveler, when you buy an airline ticket, you expect to get from where you are to where you want to go. In addition, you want the airline to get you to your destination around the time for when you booked the flights.
A little-known fact in the “Contract of Carriage” you enter when buying a ticket is that the airline is under no legal requirement to get you to your destination within any time frame.
Don’t believe me? Here’s part of Rule 24 in United’s Contract of Carriage.
- Schedules are Subject To Change Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time. UA will promptly provide Passengers the best available information regarding known delays, cancellations, misconnections and diversions, but UA is not liable for any misstatements or other errors or omissions in connection with providing such information. No employee, agent or representative of UA can bind UA legally by reason of any statements relating to flight status or other information. Except to the extent provided in this Rule, UA shall not be liable for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for any change in flight schedule, with or without notice to the passenger.
Don’t you wish you could live life like that? No responsibility to do what you say you’re going to and no legal recourse when you break the promises you make.
Delta Airlines, often held as the poster child of operational excellence, gives itself amazing leeway in its contract to leave passengers in the lurch.
- Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to transport you and your baggage from your origin to your destination with reasonable dispatch, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft types, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may substitute alternate Carriers or aircraft, change its schedules, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket as required by its operations in Delta’s sole discretion. Delta’s sole liability in the event of such changes is set forth in Rule 22. Delta is not responsible or liable for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule or any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination.
That’s why Delta was able to remove our flight from Frankfurt to Detroit from the schedule, reroute us through New York at a different time, and there was absolutely nothing we could do besides canceling the ticket.
If you really want to shake your head at what airlines can get away with, read some of the airlines’ contracts. Such as this one from Allegiant which says they have the right to strand you at an airport you didn’t want to fly to.
- If a flight is unable to land at the destination airport and is diverted to another airport, the carriage by air shall, unless the aircraft continues to the original destination, be deemed to be completed when the aircraft arrives at the diversion airport. Carrier may, however, arrange or designate alternative transportation, whether by Carrier’s own service or by other means of transportation specified by Carrier (which may include ground transportation) to transport passengers to the original destination without additional cost. Exceptions may include situations where alternative transportation is prevented by safety concerns. When alternative transportation to the original destination is provided by or at the direction of Carrier, any arrangements made by one or more passengers on their own will not be paid for or reimbursed by Carrier and are at the passengers’ own risk.
American Airlines made a bit of a stir when it changed the Contract of Carriage to say it didn’t have to get you to your destination.
- If we or our airline partner fails to operate or delays your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy.
If you’re delayed by more than 4 hours, they can strand you wherever you are and are only obligated to give you a refund for the part of the ticket you didn’t use.
Surely there must be some federal requirement for airlines to get you to your destination? Right?
Nope. In fact, the Department of Transportation states it quite bluntly on its website.
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements.
We have the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 to thank for the airlines to totally exempt from leaving passengers stranded with no legal recourse.
- U.S. domestic air fares (interstate fares, and “overseas” fares to/from U.S. territories) were deregulated by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Public Law 95-504. U.S. carriers do not file their domestic passenger fares and rules with the Department.
While the deregulation of the airlines undoubtedly led to lower pricing and the ability for a greater number of people to travel by air to their destination, it also limited the ability for those same passengers to hold the airlines accountable when they don’t keep up their side of the bargain.
Is that fair? Would you be willing to pay more for a ticket if the airline HAD to get you to your destination within a reasonable amount of time? The EU has much stronger penalties for airlines if they don’t get you to your destination on time and airfares there aren’t much higher than they are in the US.
It’s an interesting question and one we’ll probably never know the answer to. US airlines will continue to write contracts of carriage that say they’re not responsible for anything and passengers will continue to purchase tickets not knowing that doing so means they’re agreeing to those terms.
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