Passenger rights when flights are canceled

August 28, 2011 - 10:20 PM
Irene Travel

A departures board indicates that many flights, mostly to the New York area, are canceled at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011, due to Hurricane Irene. Travelers across the country faced days of grief as thousands of flights were canceled because of Hurricane Irene. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Takaaki Iwabu)

NEW YORK (AP) — What rights do you have when your flight is canceled or delayed?

After airlines scrapped more than 11,000 flights along the East Coast because of Tropical Storm Irene this weekend, that's a question facing hundreds of thousands of stranded fliers. Even passengers far from the region could be affected as airlines scramble to get planes and crews back into position.

Here's what you need to know about your (limited) rights when flights don't take off as promised:

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CANCELLATIONS

If your flight is canceled, you can request a full cash refund. This may be a better option than a voucher, which locks you into flying with a particular airline, notes Tom Parsons of BestFares.com.

But if you absolutely need to get to your destination (or you're going home), it's usually a better option to keep working with the airline to get onto another flight. Buying a last-minute, one-way flight on your own, even counting your refund, could end up costing far more than you originally paid.

As for lodging, airlines are required to get you accommodations if a flight is canceled because of a mechanical failure or other hiccup they could've prevented, said Rick Seaney, of FareCompare.com.

If the cancellation is the result of uncontrollable conditions, such a hurricane, tornado or other severe weather, you're on your own.

"When there's bad weather, airlines are pretty much off the hook," Seaney said.

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DELAYS

If your flight is delayed because of weather, you won't have the option of getting your cash back. But a big carrier may be able to get you onto another flight that is not delayed. The fee for changing flights may be waived in extraordinary circumstances, such as a hurricane.

There are fines for a certain type of delay. Airlines must pay federal authorities when they hold domestic flights on the tarmac for more than three hours and, starting last week, when they hold international flights for more than four hours. But passengers don't see a cut of the fines in either case.

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BUMPS

A rule that went into effect last week increases the compensation airlines must give passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight. The compensation is now up to $1,300. The previous compensation was up to $800.

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CHANGES

You have the right to cancel any air travel for up to 24 hours after buying a ticket.

After that, most airlines charge a $150 fee to make changes, plus the difference in cost between the old and new flights. (If the price difference is in your favor, make sure it's more than $150, or you'll end up out of pocket for changing your plans.)