Should passengers know their rights?


The answer to this question is, “Of course.” That is the answer from everyone, including the airlines. However, when we get to specifics and whether or not passenger rights should be easy to find and clearly stated by airlines, the answers become more uncertain, especially from the airlines and their unwitting cohorts, municipal airports (owned and financed by the people).

The airlines claim that passengers have all the information they need concerning their rights in the airlines’ contracts of carriage. Every airline makes their contract of carriage available through their website.

Most make this document, the contract you “sign” with the airlines every time you purchase an airline ticket, available in pdf format that can be downloaded from the airline website. The very presentation of the contract of carriage is not terribly customer-friendly or easy to access. However, it is there. And, it does deal with passenger rights.

But, honestly, have you ever actually read through the contract of carriage for any airline you have recently flown? Do you have any idea about what is included in a contract of carriage?

Here is the introduction to the American Airlines Conditions of Carriage. (I am not picking on American Airlines. All the airlines have similar conditions. However, the AA Conditions of Carriage are easily accessible on their website without going through step of downloading a pdf file.)

Your ticket and the following Conditions of Carriage constitute the contract between you, the passenger, and American Airlines, Inc. (“American”) and apply to all transportation provided by American (including transportation on codeshare partners*) between points in the United States (including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Foreign air transportation is governed by applicable tariffs on file with the Department of Transportation. See International General Rules Tariff. On some international itineraries, taxes and fees are added to the price of the ticket. Every price offered by American is the full price, which consists of the base fare, applicable carrier-imposed fees (such as surcharges), and government-imposed taxes and fees. On average, for the year ended March 31, 2012, our passengers paid $349.70 in taxes and fees (where applicable) as part of their ticket price.

American will act as an agent to issue tickets, check baggage and book reservations for transportation via other carriers which have interline agreements with American. Other carriers may have different terms and conditions applicable to their flights. These may be obtained directly from the other carriers.

*American offers codeshare service on domestic flights operated by the following carriers: American Eagle Airlines, Inc., ExpressJet Airlines, Inc., Republic Airlines, Inc., Skywest Airlines, Inc. (all doing business as American Eagle); Hawaiian Airlines, Inc.; Alaska Airlines, Inc.; Chautauqua Airlines Inc. (doing business as AmericanConnection); Hyannis Air Service, Inc. (doing business as Cape Air); Horizon Air Industries, Inc. (doing business as Alaska Airlines).

Just the introduction is daunting and it is complicated. And, we are only dealing with the introduction paragraph.

Note: American Airlines clearly states that its contract covers all domestic flights of the airline and its codeshare partners. However, it does not cover international codeshare partners and not all domestic codeshare flights. That is not explicitly stated. Consumers also need to carefully read the legal writing to realize that they are not being shown the entire contract for any international flight booked on American Airlines or through this website on codeshare partners. Also, the contract does not apply to any other airline, even if the airfare is sold by American Airlines on their website.

Now, passengers might wonder about whether this contract of carriage is in effect on international codeshare flights and oneworld alliance partner flights. This introduction provides no guidance.

I defy any passenger to figure out what baggage fees might be on AA codeshare flights operated by British Airways and other partner airlines. Do the AA fees apply? Or, do the international carrier fees apply? What about when checking bags on an AA codeshare flight overseas?

There are plenty of other questions.

If you haven’t read the contract (or conditions) of carriage, you are not alone. It seems that even the top lawyers working for airlines haven’t. Even they do not know the specifics that they claim passengers should be able to find easily.

When the Department of Transportation (DOT) writes regulations, that is only half of the battle. Getting the word out to passengers is the other important half. There, our system is failing.

Few passengers know that they have 24 hours to change their minds about flights and make changes after booking. Few travelers know that airlines need to pay involuntarily bumped passengers as much as $1,300 in cold, hard cash (not airline scrip). Few passengers know what the limits to liability on lost luggage are for airlines on domestic ($3,400) and international flights (about $1,750). Few passengers know that on international flights, they can be compensated for excessive delays.

These are four rules that can easily be noted on airline itineraries and on posters or video boards at airports. However, airlines have no interest in providing more information than that provided in contracts of carriage and the airports claim that posters would clutter the airport with unnecessary information as well other objections.

The basic mantra from the airline industry seems to be, “The uneducated passenger is our best customer.” It is time to change the system and let passengers clearly know their basic passenger/consumer rights.

  • charlieo

    I basically said this same thing in a previous post. The excerpt from the contract of carriage above goes a step further in proving it – – – anything that has to do with the consumer should be written in a very basic language, at a 7th or 8th grade level. And to simplify even more the contract should be in bullet points. This should be regulated, it should be a requirement. It should as easy to find as possible. A bold link BEFORE the finial purchase is made. Consumers may be “adults” and as such supposedly responsible for their purchases, doesn’t mean everyone is capable of figuring out the gibberish in most contracts; and I believe that’s why they are written the way they are, so that they can’t be understood by the average consumer.

  • bodega3

    Not that I don’t disagree with making this easier to read, but why all the fuss now? Since airline tickets have been issued, contract of carriage has been around. We use of to staple this to each and every ticket we issued as required.

    Also, your rights are available at the airport in printed form. It is required….but you do have to ask, they aren’t easy to obtain, which they should be.

  • jim6555

    Yes, customers have the right to cancel their tickets and receive refunds if they notify the airline with 24 hours of the time of purchase, but this provision does not apply if the ticket is for travel that begins less than seven days after it issued. Be careful if you are booking travel that starts withing the coming week and are not completely sure that you will be using the ticket.