If your flight is canceled, is your airline obligated to get you to your destination?

By | August 28th, 2016

If your flight is canceled, does your airline still have an obligation to get you to your destination on time?

Rosemarie Dagostino thinks so. She and her husband were recently scheduled to fly from Chicago to San Francisco on Frontier Airlines. “But on the morning of our departure, as I was calling for the cab to take us to O’Hare, the airline sent me a notice that there was a delay, and asking me if I wanted a refund,” she says.

A refund? Dagostino, a retired teacher from Oak Park, Ill., had a better idea: Why not transfer her tickets to another airline so they could make it to the wedding anniversary celebration they were supposed to attend in Napa, Calif.? But that’s not how it works. Frontier was only required to either refund the ticket or send the Dagostinos on its next flight with available seats.

“I found another flight on United Airlines and booked it myself,” she says.

Airline reciprocity, or the idea that carriers should accept each other’s tickets, is a hot-button issue in Washington now. It became a regulatory cause célèbre this summer after the mass cancellations caused by the IT meltdowns at Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, which left thousands of air travelers stranded. Consumer advocates support reciprocity; airlines are opposed to it.

Analysts say it might be difficult to force reciprocity on the airline industry, but there are ways to persuade airlines to honor each other’s tickets on a case-by-case basis. During the disruptions, for example, some Delta and Southwest passengers were re-booked on other airlines at no charge, even though neither carrier was legally required to do so.

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But maybe they should be, some consumer advocates say. They’re urging the Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration to issue an emergency order to immediately reinstate the reciprocity rule when an airline cancels or delays flights. Officials say the request is being reviewed.

The airline contract of carriage, the legal agreement between the passenger and airline, specifically says the airline isn’t required to keep its schedule. That’s wrong, says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, the advocacy group spearheading the reciprocity effort.

“To force passengers to reschedule on the airline’s time frame, due to an airline error, is completely unreasonable,” he says. “In the instance of a computer outage, the airline should offer a full refund or re-book flights at no additional cost.”

Many airlines say a new rule is unnecessary. Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, a trade group that represents many major domestic airlines, says that during the latest IT outage, carriers either refunded tickets or re-booked their passengers without charging them extra. “Proposals to re-regulate the industry, such as a mandatory reciprocity rule, would be a disincentive for airlines to improve and compete on service quality, and it would make flying more expensive,” Medina says.


Reciprocity was never a government requirement. Rather, it was part of an airline contract called Rule 240, which outlined what carriers would do for passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled. One of the Rule 240 requirements was something called “endorsing” a ticket to another carrier, which meant re-booking a passenger on another carrier at the airline’s own expense. And it could be expensive. Airlines typically charged each other the walk-up rate — the most expensive economy class ticket available — for a coach ticket.

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Rule 240 faded away after deregulation. But insiders say that even before deregulation, the federal government lacked the statutory authority to require reciprocity, and, in all likelihood, it still does today. Advocates, such as Hudson, disagree and say they think the government must protect consumers against “unfair and deceptive” practices. Either way, issuing an emergency order would almost certainly invite a legal challenge.

As far as passengers are concerned, this conflict isn’t really about contracts or regulations. It’s about right and wrong. How can an airline sell a ticket from Point A to Point B and then walk away from its implied obligation?

Perhaps the most irritating part of this problem is a glaring double standard: An airline can change its own flight schedule and, at worst, it must refund the ticket. If air travelers change an itinerary, they have to pay change fees and fare differentials. They could lose the entire value of their tickets.

“This situation really needs to be changed so that passengers, through no fault of their own, aren’t left stranded,” says Jan Major, an attorney from Corte Madera, Calif., who recently was stuck after a flight cancellation. Although other airlines had flights to her final destination, her carrier, United, refused to endorse her ticket.

“With aircraft flying pretty much full these days, a cancellation will leave passengers on the canceled flight with few available seats to get to their destination,” she says.

Even if there’s no longer a Rule 240, there are ways to persuade your airline to endorse your ticket to another airline. If you have a complex itinerary with multiple connections or are an elite-level member of an airline’s loyalty program, the carrier is more likely to consider an endorsement. Also, if you’re traveling with young children or are disabled, and an overnight stay or a lengthy wait is likely, a carrier may consider “240’ing” you.

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If reciprocity doesn’t become a requirement, airlines still need to do something, says Jonathan Keane, a managing director for Accenture’s aviation practice. “There is a recognition that airlines will have to do more to plan, prepare for and manage days with both minor and major disruption,” he says.

Keane and other experts admit that it’s a complicated issue. It’s a different airline industry today than when Rule 240 ruled the skies. It’s more competitive in many ways, more efficient — and more profitable.

“Airlines are operating with fewer spare seats than ever before,” he adds. “Their ability to accommodate disrupted passengers is therefore somewhat limited. While they may wish to help, they may not be in a position to do so.”

If your flight is canceled, is your airline obligated to get you to your destination?

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  • Mike

    I’d really like to see the US adopt an EU261 (I think that’s what it is) rule that applies in situations like this. Perhaps then the airlines will stop screwing the customer.

  • deemery

    Could someone explain the EU rule?

  • Altosk

    Well, anyone who flies Frontier gets what they (don’t) pay for. But I think mainline carriers should 240 each other’s PAX.

  • AJPeabody

    There should be “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” rule. If a passenger switches flights, there is a change fee and a fare difference charge. Well, then, the gander should pay what they would charge the goose: A change fee (for the inconvenience) and the difference in cost when the goose books a new ticket with another airline.

  • Kairho

    Google “EU 261”

  • MarkKelling

    I have been lucky enough over the years to get the 240 treatment a few times. Last was right before Frontier changed their ways and I was placed on a Frontier flight by United when their pilot “expired on the runway” (their words). It was convenient and helpful and I arrived within a couple hours of my original flight. In the days when there actually were empty seats on planes it was more common.

    Most airlines do what they can to get you where you were supposed to be as soon as possible when cancellations happen. They offer the ability to rebook your flight to a later date with no charge. Refunds are also offered in many situations. What is annoying is the airline’s definition of “next available flight” which they mean next available with an open seat in the same class your original ticket was in. So if there are no class Z tickets for example available until three weeks from next Thursday, then that is the next available flight. This is what needs to be addressed. It should be the next available flight with any open seat (OK, not if it means giving you 1st class when you paid for the cheapest economy seat but they could upgrade someone leaving the economy seat open).

    Airlines are rightfully against being forced to rebook passengers on other airlines. The tickets are full fare Y class and they pay for them.

  • cscasi

    “Airlines are rightfully against being forced to rebook passengers on other airlines. The tickets are full fare Y class and they pay for them.”
    Sometimes, that is the cost of doing business and doing what is right for your customers.

  • deemery

    I read both the regulation and the Wikipedia summary. The latter says, “It is unclear whether “the earliest opportunity” requires airlines to endorse a ticket onto another carrier.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_261/2004#Cancellation

  • Michael__K

    It doesn’t require endorsing a ticket onto another carrier, but they are far more likely to do so when the alternative leaves them on the hook for substantial cash compensation to their passengers.

  • Carrie Livingston

    off topic – glad to see you back

  • Mel65

    The frustrating thing is the that refund that you’re offered if they cancel your flight doesn’t make you whole, because trying to get the next flight on another carrier that same day is going to be punitively cost-prohibitive. So yeah maybe you got a refund of two hundred and fifty bucks but now the outgoing ticket for where you have to be is $850; there has to be some more equitable approach.

  • Jeff W.

    Some airlines will and some do not. They have specific interline arraignments with each other. If I remember correctly, Delta pulled out of such an arraignment with American recently. DL said the proportions of AA being rebooked to DL was much higher than DL to AA.

    There is some sort of “currency” that the airlines use to track this sort of thing. I assume the airlines want to ensure a net-zero goal and they want to make sure you have agreements with airlines that are similar to you. A Delta customer used to their service levels would be in for a shock if transferred to a Spirit flight. Yes, the passenger may be happy just to get there, but Delta also has brand image to protect.

    But just last month, I had a United flight canceled because of mechanical issues and I was rebooked on an American flight. So it does exist.

    But if you fly an LLC (or ULC), it is unlikely to have arrangements with other airlines, especially legacy carriers, to transfer reservations. That is an extra cost of which is not part of their business model.

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    “Proposals to re-regulate the industry, such as a mandatory reciprocity
    rule, would be a disincentive for airlines to improve and compete on
    service quality, and it would make flying more expensive,” Medina says.

    I love PR logic.

    How would this be a disincentive to compete on service quality? I am thinking if a loyal Delta customer, let’s say, gets his/her flight cancelled. They get transferred to Mel Airlines. I’d be telling my crew to be putting on the dog-and-pony show as I’d try to recruit them to my airline/ loyalty program, etc. They are already irked at their original carrier at that point; an extra smile and small talk from a Mel Airlines attendant to soothe them could bring a lot of benefits to reap down the road.

  • System airlines already use a voluntary form of reciprocity called “interlining” by which they agree to carry each other’s passengers, space available, in the event of delays and cancellations. Bringing back Rule 240 to force all carriers to reciprocate would simply require them to start including pariah companies like Southwest into this system, rather than being a major change in the way the industry operates.

  • sirwired

    The reason DL stopped working with AA was not because DL thought it was too expensive, but because DL thought AA was using DL as a “crutch” for running a lousy operation, and DL would rather those customers simply book DL to begin with, rather than AA sending them over when they were having problems.

    That aside, I could support the airlines being required to refund the difference between what the traveler paid and full-fare coach for their flight if they could not re-accommodate the passenger within a certain amount of time. Or, at least the change fee that applied to their fare. As other commenters have said: “Goose, meet Gander”.

  • Bill___A

    I’ve never been in the unfortunate position of having a problem with the airline’s solution when there is an issue. So I don’t really have any complaints about this personally. However, when there is a problem, the airlines should be required to take care of it in a reasonable and timely fashion. Whatever regulation that requires, I do not know…

  • DepartureLevel

    I’ve worked in airline customer service for over 35 years and never was there any directive from above (at my airline) to stop rule 240-ing cancelled or delayed passengers onto other (reciprocal) airlines. This seems to have become prevalent in the last few years (only) as an “unsaid” or “un-written” rule that agents somehow latched on to out of sheer laziness or lack of knowledge how to do it.
    In defense of newer coworkers, I can vouch that this training has not been taught for years and anyone willing to do it has to ask a senior agent how it’s done. Believe me, though, endorsing an airline ticket to another airline is not rocket science. I simply ignore my younger coworkers who are scared out of their wits to do it, and the lucky recipient in front of my counter WILL GET ENDORSED OVER TO ANOTHER AIRLINE if I have nothing to offer on my own airline within two hours or they will hopelessly misconnect to their destination. Should a supervisor even ask me why I did it, (of which I have never had a supervisor ask me), I will simply mention, courtesy, common sense and good customer service. Not helping people is poor customer service and down-right torture for something well beyond their control.

  • John Grier

    if any silly rule, was able to be introduced, it might put pressure on maintenance staff, to sign off on an aircraft, when it’s not 100% airworthy.
    The old story …
    would you rather arrive late or DEAD ON TIME ?
    Worse experience we’ve had is when Jetstar, Qantas’s low cost cancels their last flight of the evening & Qantas has 4 more flights over exactly the same route with dozens of empty seats on each flight & they won’t put passengers from the Jetstar flight on any of the Qantas flight & seriously told the Jetstar passengers to go home & come back next day, even if it wasn’t their home port.
    NOTE: for some strange reason, Qantas staff has a superiority attitude. Strange as Qantas was a government airline & most people look down on government employees (couldn’t they get a real job-the public service is a sheltered workshop).
    Even the much bandied saying that Qantas never crashes is even wrong. Qantas has had 19 fatal crashes killing 35 people.

  • James

    I think the analogous situation is when a hotel is overbooked and “walks” their late checkins to another hotel. Is this a legal requirement of being in the hotel business? Or could a “low cost” hotel say to that person, “Sorry, we’re overbooked. Do you want a refund or do you want to check in tomorrow?”

    Why should that not be an airline requirement like it is for hotels?

  • Sandra

    We have friends who were stranded in Seattle due to Delta’s IT problem. While the airline did find them seats as soon as possible, the hotel (two nights), transportation to/from hotel and meals were entirely at our friends’ expense. No vouchers; no reimbursement of any kind. This is not right; an added cost that many travelers are not expecting or prepared to incur.

  • joycexyz

    The airlines’ excuses for not endorsing the tickets are ridiculous. I fail to see how a reciprocity rule would disincentive competition or improving service. Seems like the opposite is true. Yes, airlines often fly at or near capacity, but at least give the stranded passengers a chance!

  • MarieTD

    If I have to book myself onto another airline because my first one cancelled, then I will most likely have to pay a much higher fare than my cancelled flight. So, I don’t see what’s “rightful” about airlines being against rebooking.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Concern is, as noted above, that requiring reciprocity lets lousier operators leech off better ones.
    This is why DL cancelled their interline agreement with AA. AA has much higher cancellation levels than DL. If people can just get AA to put them on DL if their flight is cancelled, then people feel comfortable booking AA. DL wants them to think about it in terms of “I should book the better airline upfront, not rely on DL to bail AA out when they screw up.”

  • James

    Another question: How do you handle the ancillary fees? Suppose you gte your flight endorsed from an airline where you have the credits for a free bag to Spiriti? WHo pays for the bag and carry on?

  • Annie M

    Up to a few years ago, Delta and AA reciprocated until Delta finally ended it. Their reasons were that AA was sending 4 or 5 times more passengers to Delta than Delta was to them.I can see Delta’s point – why should they have to deal with so many passengers due to AA’s poor management?

    I do think that the airlines should be required to get the passengers on another flight that day. Perhaps that would require them to ensure their planes were properly serviced so they didn’ thave to many mechanical delays and also properly staffed.

  • Lindabator

    They will get you to your destination in most cases, just might not be the same time. But as an agent, I was able to get Delta to switch tickets to United flights as needed, PLUS give future travel vouchers for the guests – just keep in mind that not ALL airlines (like LCCs) will do that

  • Lindabator

    not always – but some times you lose the upgraded seats, better class of service, etc. but actually used the rule to get my sister a FC seat on the next flight, as it would have made more sense than moving the ticket to another carrier

  • Lindabator

    true – and sometimes, it may appear there is space, but those seats you see are in overbooked space already, so the airlines have to assign an actual space, not space that will be assured of being bumped. and as flights are generally so heavily booked already, sometimes the next day might be the only option

  • Lindabator

    of course, we deal with OTAs too often, and they do NOT service the client, throwing them back to the airlines — I am a travel agent, and my clients are amazed at what benefits they can get…. had a client enroute when notified their connection was cancelled due to crew rest. Was able to rebook them on another carrier, and texted them enroute. She said she had to laugh when she landed, because a lot of others were in the same boat with cancellations, but she told her husband was already handled and they have to go over to the other terminal to catch their new flight — another passenger was shocked until she told him her agent already dealt with the problem – she gave him my card, and have a NEW client now! :)

  • Lindabator

    true – as an agent I deal with sales reps, and they are far more educated in what they can do, and will do it quickly and seemlessly.

  • Lindabator

    because the Motel 6 doesn’t walk you to the Four Seasons!

  • Lindabator

    They ARE entitled to vouchers – heave them email me directly if they need assistance, as I would be happy to help! linda@premtrav.com

  • Lindabator

    you do, unfortunately. But still a better option that refunding that ticket and buying a new one.

  • Lindabator

    apples and oranges

  • Lindabator

    but in many cases, there truly ARE no other flights that day – flights are packed to the gills as it is, and when impacted by IT problems, ATC or weather – DOMINOES!

  • Lindabator

    +1000

  • Bill___A

    That’s good of you and good for the client. People should use qualified and skilled professional travel agents if they wish to have an advocate and avoid having to deal with these things themselves.

  • wilcoxon

    They certainly don’t always use it. Several years ago, we had an American flight cancelled and they refused to do anything except put us on the same flight the next day (which sucked because we had to pay the change fees on our other tickets (booked separately) and we missed out on a day in Ireland where we were meeting friends). If rule 240 had been in place, we might have still made our other flight.

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