Why do airlines hate it when you know your rights?

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By Christopher Elliott

Information is power. No industry understands that better than airlines, which parcels out information about itself on a need-to-know basis, if it does at all. Don’t believe me? Then maybe you weren’t one of the thousands of air travelers affected by last week’s polar vortex, and who were stranded and left in the dark about their flights.

To get a true idea of the airline industry’s tortured relationship with information, consider what happened to Melissa Buchanan when she booked a flight for her mother from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Montego Bay, Jamaica.

“I inadvertently selected the wrong destination on her booking,” she says. She phoned Spirit Airlines to ask it to cancel her flight. It told her that any changes or cancellations made after confirming a reservation carry a fee of $125 through its reservation center or $115 if done online.

But Spirit neglected to mention one very important detail.

Buchanan could have canceled her flight within a day of making her nonrefundable reservation and received a full refund under the Transportation Department’s 24-hour rule. This regulation is reviled by the airline industry.

(I suggested she send a quick note to the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division, and wouldn’tcha know it, Spirit quickly coughed up a refund. That, my friends, is how it’s done.)

There’s a lot of information the airline industry doesn’t want you to know. How do I know? I talk to airline employees every day. They sometimes can barely conceal their disdain for someone who tries to help their passengers.

I’m gonna tell your mommy

Just a few weeks ago, while working on a story about minimum connection times, I locked horns with a publicist for a major airline over — you guessed it — information.

I’d requested details about how his carrier determines its connection times, which is such a controversial subject, I know, and the flack replied with a cursory response written in unusable fragments. Clearly, he didn’t want his airline mentioned in the story and was trying to persuade me to skip any mention of his employer by sending me useless information.

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When I offered to clean up his garbled statement, and even sent him the revised paragraph to review as a courtesy, the PR person flipped out. He angrily accused me of fabricating quotes and demanded that I delete his airline from my story.

I don’t make up quotes, of course, but I’m not shy about asking a source if I can fix the grammar in a written statement.

I felt bad for him. Even though it was the first time we had worked together, it was obvious that he’d been reading my stories for years and the rage was boiling over. All those articles I’d written that had been critical of his employer. All that information I’d put in the hands of passengers who wouldn’t have known better.

But I didn’t realize that he was probably experiencing an actual mental breakdown until he threatened to call my parents. That’s right, he said he’d tell on me.

I almost offered him my mother’s phone number.

You’re probably wondering if his airline made the story (here it is, by the way). It did not, but not because of the publicist’s tantrum. We didn’t have the space to publish his useless statement, it turns out.

You’re welcome, Mom!

Finding the truth

Point is, the airline industry is full of people who don’t want me to know the facts. They definitely don’t want you to know.

They don’t want you to understand your rights. Also, they don’t disclose the real reason for your flight delay. Unfortunately, they also won’t inform you about the extra fees until it’s too late. And they don’t want me telling you.

Even when they give you the information, it’s hidden and obfuscated in the fine print, like their dense contract of carriage. Here’s Delta Air Lines’, which I can assure you, is just a totally random example that I pulled out of thin air.

To be fair, some airlines are open about their information. They also have a reputation for taking care of their customers. They are the Southwests and Singapores of the world. But many more don’t. They stonewall and even mislead, believing that confusion and secrecy is the fastest path to profits. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

They even go on the record to say they don’t want you to know your rights.

So what should you do about that? You could study all the rules, like the hard-core loyalty program cult members who hang out online (don’t they have jobs?). You could lawyer up and fight back whenever you’re duped. But the best way to avoid it is to adjust your attitude.

You have to assume that you aren’t being told the whole story. Is there a poorly-disclosed fee lurking there somewhere? A rule, perhaps, that wasn’t mentioned, but could change everything?


That’s one reason I wrote my latest book, How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler. Because I want you to know.

Because you deserve to know.

Do airlines want you to know your rights?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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