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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, December 7, 2003

Air delay compensation no sure thing

By Martin J. Moylan
Knight Ridder News Service

Rosa Giertz was supposed to be in Chicago, not Madison, Wis.

But that's where she ended up after her Northwest Airlines flight from the Twin Cities couldn't land at Chicago's Midway Airport because of bad weather.

Running low on fuel, her plane landed in Madison. That's where she'd have to spend the night, she was told. NWA told Giertz and other passengers to show up the next morning for another flight to Chicago.

What does an airline owe you when a plane is late, a flight is canceled, your bag is lost or some other problem occurs? Well, it depends.

People often assume airlines are required to do much more than they do to make amends for service problems.

The confusion is understandable because what an airline does often hinges on whether an event was beyond its control — and there often is debate about that call.

Giertz thought Northwest owed her more than a flight the next day: meals and a hotel room on the airline, or, if she wanted it — and she did — the cost of a rental car, cab or bus to get to the Windy City that night.

That's not how NWA saw its obligation, though.

"They did get us a hotel, but we would have to pay $49 for that night," she recalls of her flight in July. "They said if I wanted to take a cab, I'd have to pay for it. And they said they wouldn't pay for any meals. People were getting really mad."

But what was Northwest required to do for those passengers? Not what Giertz wanted, said NWA, though the airline adds it ended up doing more than required for the passengers. The extra effort included getting passengers a discount on hotel rooms and giving them credits toward future travel, said NWA spokeswoman Mary Stanik.

Some carriers can be much more generous than others in making amends to passengers. They may take responsibility for events beyond their control, such as weather or air traffic control delays.

One of the most common misperceptions of air travelers is that when a flight is delayed or canceled, they have the right to demand transportation on another carrier.

"The reality is that generally is not true," said Sam Podberesky, assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement for the U.S. Department of Transportation. "Generally, the carrier you have a ticket on will carry you on its next flight."

Airlines have the discretion to fly you on another carrier when they can't readily accommodate you on one of their planes, Podberesky said. But they aren't obligated to fly you on another airline — unless they make such a commitment as a matter of company policy.

Airlines also do not have to compensate you for delayed or canceled flights — unless it's their policy to do that, according to the Transportation Department.

If your flight is canceled, you're due a refund. But beyond that, it's up to each airline to determine how it will make amends to passengers, if at all.

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on their next flight on which space is available, at no additional charge.

Treatment may vary

Understandably, how much business you give an airline can make a difference in how you're treated.

"With full-service carriers, a lot of what they'll do is based on how good a customer the airline thinks it has — in terms of frequent-flier miles, the fare paid, history with the airline," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "There's a triage process that goes on. You'll see a different response to different customers based on a multiplicity of factors."

Some carriers, JetBlue in particular, do much more than they must, Stempler said.

"Their customer service is extraordinary," he said. "Some of our members got free tickets (on JetBlue) even when a delay was because of weather."

Some compensation

If you are "bumped" off a flight because the airline sold more tickets than it has seats, you are almost always due compensation.

First, a carrier must seek volunteers, enticing them with some compensation to give up their seats. The Department of Transportation does not say how much the airline has to give volunteers. So, be ready to negotiate about money, free tickets and other compensation.

If you're bumped off a flight involuntarily, you're due an on-the-spot payment, with the amount depending on the price of the ticket and the length of the delay. The most you can collect is $400.

You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight, too.

But if an airline can get you to your destination within one hour of your scheduled arrival time, you get nothing. There are also exceptions for charters and planes carrying fewer than 60 people.

If your bags are delayed, lost or damaged on a domestic trip, don't expect airlines to pay more than $2,500 per passenger in compensation. Purchase "excess valuation" coverage if your contents are worth more.

On international trips, an airline's liability limit is $9.07 per pound. So, if a carrier loses your 60-pound bag, you'd get $544.20. If your suitcase arrives damaged, an airline will generally pay for repairs or pay what the bag is worth.