The Secret Airline Passenger Rights You Don't Know About

If you get thrown off a flight you could be owed $1350 in cash. But the airline won't tell you that...

Two days ago I was thrown off an airplane.

The Secret Airline Passenger Rights You Don't Know About

To be precise, I was “involuntarily denied boarding.”

I never stepped foot on the airplane, just stood by the gate for 90 minutes before it took off and 73 minutes after, getting grouchier and grouchier.

I was flying from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to celebrate Thanksgiving with the boyfriend’s parents. We were flying three days early to get ahead of the Thanksgiving rush. Clearly, we failed spectacularly.

The boyfriend started muttering expletives and fidgeting; I did what I do best under pressure: Google.

Ten minutes of button bashing paid off when the airline customer service agent offered us $300 in airline credit. All we had to do was sign a form that said we’d voluntarily chosen not to board.

But the $300 was in airline credit, not cash. Airline credit does work for flights but also comes with a number of provisions, blackout dates, certain time frames, you have to call to use it…


Customer service lady looked like she wanted to say something impolite then went back to the counter to figure out another offer.

What airlines don’t tell you about compensation

In 2011, the United States Department of Transportation stepped up airline regulations. Now, when airlines fail to board you because they’re overbooked, you have more rights for cash compensation.

Put differently, airlines have to pay you cash if you miss a flight because it was overbooked.

However, the airline doesn’t have to tell you about that, so I’m laying it out for you here.

You have a right to get to your destination

If you miss your flight because of overbooking, then the airline is obligated to get you where you were going as quickly as they can with no charge whatsoever. They must get you on the most reasonable flight possible (reasonable means no 28-hour layovers), regardless of class, and must accommodate you in the interim.

That means a free hotel if you need to wait a night before boarding, and free meal vouchers if you incur expenses. They also must refund any extras, like upgrades, extra baggage, etc.

In the first half of 2013, 277,000 passengers were denied boarding. 31,500 were involuntary, AirHelp reported. So this happens a lot. And you don’t have to stand for it.

For one, the hotel they provide for you can be in the form of a voucher that can be claimed any time. So if you decide to stay with friends instead of the hotel you are still entitled to a hotel voucher from the airline, to be used at your leisure.

You have a right to get cash back even if they rebook you (if you’re denied boarding)

Regardless if the airline helped you get to your destination, if you arrive two hours later than expected then you’re entitled to 200% of your one-way fare back. If you arrive more than four hours after your initial arrival time then this goes up to 400% of your one-way ticket.

The only catch is that there is a maximum of $675 (for 200%) and $1,350 (for 400%). And you can have this in cash or a check, not airline credit. If you’re offered airline credit, refuse. These numbers are correct as of May 2015.

In my case, I was originally offered $1,500 in airline credit by United Airlines. They couched this as “EEC” credit, and I didn’t realize until I was looking at the form. Then I objected, a manager was called, and I waited 30 minutes until I received a check for $1,350.

How to avoid being “overbooked”

There are a couple of steps you can take to avoid being chucked off an overbooked flight. Step one is reserving a seat number when you book, and checking in within 24 hours of your flight.

In our case, this wasn’t possible as we booked through American Airlines but were flying with United, and their merger kerfuffle means you can’t always check in remotely.

Another trick is to be an elite member or a frequent flyer member. This way you get air miles for the trip and are less likely to be bumped as the airline perceives you as being more valuable.

Bargaining if you want to be denied boarding #forthewin

What about being denied boarding on purpose? Free hotels, extra cash… it sounds pretty good. As long as you’re in no rush (no wedding, no job interview) this can work out nicely. If you want to maximize chances, don’t book seats, sign in, or try to redeem miles. You can do that all later.

And try to fly at peak times. Think Sunday nights, holidays, and big events. Flying in and out of bigger airports means a larger likelihood of overbooking. But be warned; if they re-seat you and you land within two hours, you get all of that hassle for no reward, and that’s a tricky game to play.


Who do you call if this isn’t working?

Sometimes your most pleasant and polite communication might not achieve the correct – and legal – results you need. You’ve asked for the manager and they don’t agree. So what do you do?

First off, don’t sign anything. You can sign your right away to earn cash. The airline legally has to re-seat you, but they don’t have to pay up if you sign away your rights.

If the customer service team isn’t helping, call the airline customer service team on the phone. Seems odd, but it can be effective to circumvent the people you’re arguing with. And do this all while still in the terminal; it’s much harder to sort out later.

Social media can also help – try tweeting at the correct airline, and you might be surprised at how quickly they respond. Check out this list for contacts, and let us know what should be updated.

What if you don’t want to deal with this?

You know your rights and what you can do, but you kind of don’t want to. You’re hungover and not in an arguing mood. Well, let Service sort it for you for free. We told you about this in our shopping article, and we’re bringing it up again as airline complaints make up the bulk of their work.

Here’s how it works: CEO Michael Schneider and his team take your complaint details, your receipts, etc., and they get a resolution for you. This is cashback, reimbursements, whatever. And they do this all for free (for now) as they’re building out their business. So they’ll do the legwork for you and you reap the benefits without any added stress.

The baggage know-how

Amazingly, if you’re denied boarding from a flight, it doesn’t mean your baggage is. They can quite happily send your flights thousands of miles away with your checked bag in tow. Think they have to check with you first to take it off? Nah, they don’t. They can legally fly it and hold it for you in the airport you were meant to fly into. Sucks, right?

But they do have certain responsibilities about getting the bag to you within a certain time frame.

And you’re entitled to compensation for delayed baggage, as well as lost baggage. In 2013, 1.8 million people filed baggage claims, and you need to understand what your rights are for a happy(ish) resolution.


You are entitled to claim up to $3,500 for delayed baggage

It’s annoying not to have your baggage, and while you can handle it for a few days, you might really need what’s in there for your trip. Perhaps it’s a business suit for a meeting or ski gear for snow time. Your vacation doesn’t have to be ruined. The Department of Transportation has declared that you’re entitled to up to $3,500 for delayed baggage, more than enough to replace a suit or a coat for a few days.

Make sure to keep all your receipts and document everything you spend. The airline will reimburse you and it might take a while, so you have to be reasonable.

While you’re still at the airport remember to ask for “expenses money.” According to DOT:

“Most carriers set guidelines for their airport employees that allow them to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. The amount depends on whether or not you’re away from home and how long it takes to track down your bags and return them to you.”

They also say:

“For replacement clothing or other articles, the carrier might offer to absorb only a portion of the purchase cost, on the basis that you will be able to use the new items in the future.”

So don’t go crazy with the spending.

Most airlines have a sum in mind that they consider “normal” for every day you’re without baggage… but they don’t like to reveal this. After 30 minutes on hold with United, I was given $150 to spend per day for necessities. Considering I’d traveled from the West coast to the East coast this meant a coat and a toothbrush. But I could legally claim more. And airlines are sneaky about this.

Get the following forms here:

If your bags contained more value than this, hopefully you documented them as “high value” when you checked them in. That’s a whole separate form to deal with (sorry).

You are entitled to claim $3,500 for lost baggage

Once your bag has been declared officially lost then the misery/fun begins. You’re entitled to claim $3,500 for a lost bag, and this sum isn’t altered by how much you’ve already claimed for a delayed bag. But don’t use this as a reason to go crazy with the plastic, as it’s hard to get fully reimbursed.

That’s because now you have to start filling in long and annoying claim forms, and somehow find receipts for underwear you purchased way back. And airlines notoriously don’t pay the full value of your claim; they calculate with depreciation, meaning they reckon that a 2-year-old suit is now worth 50%, however unfair that is. And they have a long list of items that they won’t cover; you already signed away that right when you bought your flight. This includes electronics, sunglasses, jewelry, keys, and liquids – including perfumes.

They’ll often offer “airline flight credit” in lieu of a cash payment. Consider how much you value that before accepting, and remember you’re entitled to cash.

You are entitled to $1,675 for lost baggage outside of the states

Surprisingly, you can get more money back for baggage delayed and lost inside America than out. International trust falls under a treaty called the Montreal Convention that governs liability. The sum varies with inflation and is around the $1,675 mark. This is what they’ll reimburse you for in lost luggage.

They’ll pay some expenses for delayed baggage, but this does not fall under the DOT $3,500 sum.

Airline know-how

Getting some extra cash from the airlines will go a small way to making you feel better about wasting your precious hours inside a fart vacuum. But it won’t save your holiday or your day.

Don’t be grateful that you’ve received 400% cashback, this is your right and you are entitled to it. We’ve been letting them get away with treating us badly for way too long; now at least you can feel crappy about your trip and still have a pocket full of cash.

You’re welcome.

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