Most people are certain that they have airline passengers' rights, but are less certain about what those rights are, and what they include. Unfortunately, passengers' rights currently are a myth. Before traveling, it's important to have some knowledge of what airline carriage agreements (the closest you'll have to passengers' rights) include, but also what you're entitled to if your flight is delayed or you are bumped from a flight.
The airline carriage agreement
While the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation set some guidelines for the airlines, since airline deregulation in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, virtually all of your rights are dictated by the airline's carriage agreement. When you buy an airline ticket, the carriage agreement clearly discloses that you are entering into an agreement (i.e. a binding contract) with the airline. You agree to give them your hard-earned cash, and they agree to give you certain services in return. If one of your "rights" is not in that agreement, then it doesn't exist.
The recent media coverage of passengers' rights involves only legislation that has been either proposed at the federal level or overturned at the state level; so while we hear a lot about passengers' rights, nothing currently exists.
Airline passengers' rights: flight delays
If your flight is delayed to such a degree that it wrecks your entire vacation, are you simply out of luck? If you want to sue the airline for lost sun time, yes. But there is still hope, for a couple reasons: First, airlines do realize that if they treat their customers poorly they will not survive. Second, and possibly more importantly, the Department of Transportation has persuaded the airlines to maintain certain "rights" in their carriage agreements, which generally provide the following:
If your flight is delayed more than four hours between the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM, the airline must give you vouchers for and transportation to a hotel room.
If your flight is delayed by (typically) two hours, the airline will give you free meal vouchers. However, note that this right is quickly changing and quite often is reserved only for first-class passengers.
If your flight is delayed more than two hours, the airline must afford you a free three-minute phone call to anywhere in the continental U.S.
Airline passengers' rights: getting bumped
The good news is that, even though travelers have very few rights beyond the carriage agreement, involuntary bumping is one area where the Federal Aviation Administration has issued guidelines to decrease the possibility that you will strangle an airline representative. If you are bumped involuntarily:
The airline is required to explain your rights in a written document. Make sure you get this document and understand it.
You are entitled to compensation for your inconvenience. However, the airlines will always try to accommodate you on another flight. They do not need to compensate you if they find you alternative transportation that gets you to your destination within one hour of your scheduled arrival.
If you are not happy with the airline's accommodation, you can always request an "involuntary refund" for your ticket and make your own travel arrangements.
Keep in mind that the airlines have the right to deny you boarding, so before you stomp your feet on the customer service counter, make sure that you have not done any of the following:
Failed to meet the airline's check-in deadlines. For most domestic flights, this is one hour before scheduled departure and two hours for international flights.
Acted disorderly, abusive, or violent-intoxication-related behavior included. Since 9/11, if you stumble onto your flight, the flight crew doesn't take any risks and will likely help you stumble right back to the boarding area.
Refused to permit the airlines to search your person or property for explosives or weapons.
Boarded the plane barefoot or are unable to fasten the seat belt around your waist (honest).
It's usually pretty easy to meet these requirements, but it's also important to know they exist.