What Are Your Legal Options if Your Flight Is Delayed or Canceled?
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
You made it all the way to the airport — and you’re even on time. Everything seems to be going your way. Parking isn’t too expensive, the security line is relatively short and there’s even a decent coffee shop near your gate. Just one problem: Your flight has been canceled.
Now comes the really un-fun part. Delays and cancellations are already a nightmare, but calling the customer service line and dealing with airline representatives can be even more frustrating. Understanding your legal rights can help you get the best outcome after a delayed flight or cancellation.
You have the right to a refund if your flight is significantly delayed. Although federal laws and regulations give you the right to this refund, they don't clearly define what constitutes a "significant delay," and obtaining a refund for a delayed flight can be difficult. The Department of Transportation (DOT) determines refunds on a case-by-case basis.
These U.S. laws and regulations apply to domestic flights. If you are flying to or from a foreign country, you may have additional rights under that country's laws.
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If an airline cancels your flight and you choose not to travel, you're entitled to a full refund under federal law. The airline might offer to rebook you on a different flight or offer you a voucher, and these are sometimes good options. However, be aware that vouchers usually have expiration or blackout dates. Airlines often prefer to give vouchers, so you may have to demand a refund if that's your preference.
Some airlines may pay for your hotel or transportation if your flight is canceled, but no federal law requires this. Airlines aren't required to pay you for events or reservations you miss due to a canceled flight.
Unfortunately, you don't have many rights if you purchase a nonrefundable ticket and miss the flight for personal reasons, such as an illness or a car accident. However, you probably do have rights if you miss a connecting flight due to a delay or a plane being diverted to a different airport.
In these cases, the contract between you and the airline (made when you purchase your ticket) may require the airline to rebook you on another flight free of charge. You may also be entitled to a hotel if you're stranded overnight. Airlines have differing policies; you can find more information on the airline's website.
Depending on the circumstances, you may be entitled to compensation if an airline bumps you from an oversold flight. The airline may seek volunteers to take a different flight by offering airline vouchers, cash or accommodations. If you volunteer, make sure you clearly understand the terms of the agreement.
Sometimes, not enough people volunteer. Airlines can legally bump passengers from an oversold flight but may have to offer compensation. No payment is required if the airline can get you to your destination on a different flight within 1 hour of the originally scheduled arrival time.
Compensation isn't required if the situation involves:
- Safety reasons require a smaller plane
- A small aircraft
- A charter flight
- An international flight departing a foreign country
In most cases, you can't be kicked off a flight after you have boarded simply because the plane is overbooked.
The reason for a delay or cancellation can sometimes affect your options.
Airlines have committed to compensating passengers if a delay is the airline's fault. Maintenance, crew scheduling and baggage loading problems are typically considered the airline's fault. Compensation depends on the length of a delay and the airline but may include:
- Rebooking the passenger on another airline at no charge
- Meal vouchers
- Complimentary hotel accommodations and ground transportation
The U.S. Department of Transportation tracks the commitments made by airlines.
Passengers usually aren't compensated for issues beyond the airlines' control. Extreme weather events, like the New York snowstorm in late 2022, can cause major flight issues, but these problems are beyond the control of any airline.
Other events can also be outside an airline's control. For example, on the morning of January 11, 2023, the Federal Aviation Administration suffered a major outage of the computer system that sends messages to pilots. Flights were delayed for safety until the system was restored. While these delays frustrate travelers, airlines usually aren't responsible for compensation.
Some airlines make it easy to see the cause of a delayed flight by checking their app or website, but other times, you may have to ask an airline agent for more information.
Occasionally, delays and cancellations are caused by multiple factors. Southwest Airlines canceled or delayed thousands of flights in December of 2022. While extreme winter weather was partially to blame, Southwest's scheduling system and other issues appeared to exacerbate the problems. Ultimately, Southwest will probably pay millions to refund flights, pay for hotels and offer compensation to comply with federal laws and contractual obligations.
Dealing with an airline can be challenging, especially if you're tired and stuck in an airport. If you aren't getting what you believe is owed, there are some steps you can take.
First, politely ask to speak to a supervisor. If you're stuck on the phone with an agent who won't provide appropriate compensation, simply talking to another person may be helpful.
If talking to the airline hasn't helped, make a demand in writing. Airlines may take several days to respond, especially if problems are widespread.
Ultimately, you may need to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. A lawyer can also help, especially if other passengers have the same problems. Some passengers have sued Southwest for the long delays in reimbursing passengers for December 2022 cancellations.
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