Why do airlines hate it when you know your rights?

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.

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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, and 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, a regulation that’s 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? Because I talk to airline employees every day, and 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.

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 and definitely don’t want you to know.

They don’t want you to understand your rights, they don’t disclose the real reason for your flight delay, and they 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 and they 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.

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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75 thoughts on “Why do airlines hate it when you know your rights?

      1. Silly ad hominem. I prefer to have actual information rather than descend into populism. I used to be a 100k annual traveler for 4 years as well as a 50k travelers for several years bracketing those.

        I’ve has one experience where the airline tried to get me to accept less compensation then I was due. That occurred in 1996.

        1. “Used to be”

          Things have changed. Maybe you should refrain from commenting about things you are no longer familiar.

          1. Of you’re silly. You’re one of those posters who gets all hot and bothered when someone has the temerity to disagree with you. Although technically I haven’t actually taken a position one way or the other. I hope you stick around. We’re going to have great fun.

          2. 1. I’ve been here for a LONG time.
            2. The only person in the world who can make me hot and bothered is my wife. I don’t think you are her.

            3. If you don’t have enough information to make a decision, then that points to your lack of experience in such matters. Which is what I said originally. Thanks for proving my point!

          3. Lol. You really are a hoot. Thank you for breaking up my day. I appreciate the laugh. We’re going to have a great time.

  1. Oh. My. God. As a PR person, this makes me cringe and I am so sorry. I’ve worked with editors who’ve written stories that I was horrified to have to tell my clients about. But never (ever!) have I threatened to call someone’s parents.

    If he worked for an agency, I hope you called the agency’s principals and let them know about the threat to tattle on you to Mommy and Daddy. It’s unethical and unprofessional. I’m embarrassed for the guy and I don’t even know who it is. Eeeeeesh.

    1. Oh, no worries. It’s all water under the bridge. I have to say, after being bullied like that, I was less likely to look the other way when a negative story about his airline crossed my desk. I’m sure it won’t happen again.

  2. Of course not, I’ve witnessed of too many incidents in recent memory where airlines either outright lied, mislead or neglected to inform customers of their rights.

    For instance, I heard the announcement that a flight to NYC was canceled due to maintenance. Then they un-canceled that flight and gave our plane that was going to Toronto to the NYC passengers and tried to claim the flight to Toronto was canceled due to weather (there was no bad weather east of the Rockies). I can appreciate the airline trying to inconvenience the fewest number of passengers, but they were trying to stiff passengers from any compensation and leave them stranded at the airport overnight. I objected and cited chapter and verse…then suddenly everyone was getting vouchers. Of course,I was in my home city and didn’t need them – returned home and took the flight the next morning. But it was VERY clear that they were trying to get out from paying food and hotel bills.

    Also, at least 3 times in the last year I’ve seen a passenger who had a confirmed ticket bumped from an oversold plane and heard them being told that all they were entitled to was a $200 voucher. Denied boarding compensation rules say otherwise.

    No, they don’t want informed passengers. They want mindless sheep who will blindly hand over their money and are afraid to actually assert the few rights we do have!

    1. Three of my last flight to Boston had already begun boarding, and then they stopped boarding, and had us leave the plane due to a delay. When we exited the plane, the gate gate now said the plane was going to Dulles. When I checked our flight status, it was delayed due to a late arriving aircraft, which was delayed due to weather. The average delay was 3 hours. When people asked for meal vouchers they were told no, because it’s a weather delay. The old United pre-merger never pulled these shenanigans. I understand them wanting to get the DC flight out on time because it probably has a lot of international connections, and BOS does not, but I just wish they would be honest about it.

    2. I was bumped from an Air Tran flight. The gate attendant announced over and over that if you volunteered to give up your seat, they would give you a voucher for a round trip ticket, $300, and a hotel voucher plus meals. They guaranteed a flight out the next day at the same time. My family of 6 were flying together for Christmas at a resort in Montego Bay. I was the only one without a seat even though we made the reservations 3 months in advance. My husband decided to give up his seat and stay with me. We kissed our family good bye and said we would see them the next day. After the gate was closed, Mr. McNeil with Southwest/AirTran called the 5 overbooked passengers and told us we could not get out for 4 days. There were no flights available until Christmas Day. They outright LIED. We were given a check and left with absolutely no help from the airline. In face there was no one even available in customer service on the phone. They were closed for the weekend. There were no employees at the air tran or Southwest ticketing counters. We were left at our connecting airport, Orlando to fend for ourselves. They gave us a check that did not cover the loss or our resorts or the exorbitant airfares we had to pay to get to our destination. On the back of the check it said, if the check is endorsed that gives up all rights of further claims toward Southwest or AirTran. After five hours in lines, my husband and i found flights on separate airlines to our destination. Three weeks later and still no satisfaction.

      1. You were not bumped. You voluntarily surrendered your seat.
        You failed to perform due diligence in that you neglected to check flight schedules.
        Next time, take your scheduled flight instead of trying to get something for nothing.

        1. I think you need to read her post again. The way I read it, she was bumped, because not enough people accepted the airline’s offer. She was not trying to get something for nothing.

          What seems to have happened was this: The airline was offering those who gave up their seats a next-day flight. When not enough people accepted that offer, the bumped passengers asked for the next-day flight and were denied. In theory, since her husband surrendered his seat voluntarily, HE should have been given a next-day flight, as promised. But it looks like that next-day flight was a fabrication.

          1. Here is what she wrote…

            “The gate attendant announced over and over that if you volunteered to give up your seat, they would give you a voucher for a round trip ticket, $300, and a hotel voucher plus meals.”

            The word “Volunteer” indicates a choice was made.

  3. Of course airlines don’t want the passengers to know their rights – if they know their rights it costs the airlines money.

  4. As I was reading this article, I was thinking “Southwest hasn’t ever done me wrong. They have always been pretty forthright with me.” Then Chris I got to the end and mentions them as a good example of how it can be done. I travel for business often and they’ve always accommodated me within reason as needed.

      1. Hey, 7 miles away is close enough for most airlines. At least they didn’t keep everyone on the plane all night because there was no gate to unload at. 😉

      2. My husband and I were just joking that when pilots use their tablets in the cabin that they’d better not have Apple’s Maps program loaded on it!

  5. Hmmm. Major airline, NOT mentioned in the story. Lufthansa, United, US Airways ARE mentioned in the story. It’s an airline you’ve mentioned in past stories. Hmmm. My interest is definitely piqued.

    Is Spirit a “major” airline?

    1. I am dying to know what airline too! Though, personally, I was thinking it was United, they have gone down hill fast since the merger, and according to Decembers issue of Hemispheres, they have a new PR person. I hope Chris was dealing with the old one, assuming it is United. However, you are probably right, Spirit is know for their customer non-service.

      1. I find it interesting that each person thinks its a different airline than the previous person. That tells you all you need to about why we hate to fly.

      2. all carriers overbook in order to cover for no shows.
        Checking in electronically 24 hours before flight time is essential to keep from being involuntarily bumped.

  6. In Sept of 2012, my elderly aunt made last minute plans to attend another aunt’s funeral by flying Delta. After she arrived, she said she had made changes to her itinerary and was charged $150. Since I knew there couldn’t have been much time between initial contact and changes, I asked and determined that, yes, she had made the changes within 24 hours. The rule change had just taken effect so training must have been fresh for any reservation agents. I called, complained, and got her a refund.
    It just still bothers me that I had to do it because it shows that that particular airline is not interested in following that rule, and who knows what others!

  7. “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.”

    What? Seriously? THAT’S WHAT YOU OFFERED TO DO!

  8. @elliottc:disqus

    If anyone can help.. Need to secure Bereavement Flights – Best Process?

    Grandma died Saturday and my grandfather just passed away this morning all of a sudden…. Married 70 years… Need to book family on flights.

    1. My condolences, I am so sorry, that must be very tough. In all honesty, I would recommend you contact one of the agents on here, or a local agent if you know one. Now adays the bereavement fares are a small percentage off full fare, so discount fares are actually cheaper. I hung up my airline availability and fare rule tool when I stopped traveling weekly, otherwise I could do a quick fare search and look for whats available in each fare, but a TA with GDS could do that ever faster.

      1. Don’t know a TA locally. Brother needs to get here and family is booking flights. Grandfather literally passed 3 hour ago. Said wasn’t feeling well and …..Think broken heart.

        Thanks on condolences. I’m in Detroit right now so don’t know anyone here locally. I’m from Ohio.

          1. Hi Linda,
            I booked U.S. Airways @ $577, and while on phone, price had jumped from 528. Christopher Elliott is going to try get in touch with his contact to see if they’ll assist.

            Curiosity, what is pricing for IAH / Hobby to DTW for today / Tomorrow?

      1. Thanks for the condolences.

        U.S. Airways offers no bereavement. Just paid 577 dollars for a ticket to get brother here. Least grandmother and grandfather are once again united.

          1. I just did U.S. Airways for 577 dollars. Brother needed to fly from Houston to Detroit. Couldn’t find cheaper fare and price went up 49 dollars from 528 to 577 while looking.

            Imagine I got fleeced on the price…

            Not easy… Guess after 70 years married they didn’t want to be apart.

          2. I stuck my brother on Spirit on Jan 5th (Grandmother Died Jan 4th). Detroit had a bad storm and he got stuck in airport 8-10 hours. Returned home on Saturday and they stranded him again 2 hours.

            So we opted to avoid them all together…..
            I booked U.S. airways @ 577 roundtrip from Hou to DTW. U.S. Airways kept me on hold an hour and price went up 50 bucks while waiting.. All to be told NO bereavement fare.

          3. I booked it at 577…. Everyone else wanted over 1000 dollars… Delta was great with my mother last time. She’s already up here now as neither her nor I had left from my grandmother… Brother went home just Saturday.

            I guess the 577 is already spent now. Too bad U.S. Airways doesn’t bend policy for death but what could I do?

    2. Justin, my condolences on your loss. Some airlines still have bereavement fares, but they are few and far between. You’re almost better off trying to book an opaque fare with Priceline or Hotwire. It depends where you are trying to go. We have some amazing travel agents on this site, too, who can help. Let us know how we can help.

      1. @elliottc:disqus

        I think everyone probably got fleeced. I called U.S. Airways and while on hold for 45 minutes, price went up 49 dollars…. U.S. AIrways was the only flight I could find outside of Spirit…
        When Grandma died last Saturday, I stuck my brother on Spirit and he got stranded 8 hrs coming here and 2 hours coming back….

        Didn’t see any other choices… Do you know if U.S. AIrways has a bereavement policy? I did try and call.. Booked return trip fro Houston — DTW on Tuesday Jan 14 to Mon Jan 20th….. Best I found was 577… went up from 528 while I was on phone.

          1. @elliottc:disqus

            Link doesn’t work. I booked at 577. Do you think there is any way for U.S. Airways to adjust with merger? I avoided Spirit because I used them last week on my brother. Stranded him 8-10 Hours coming here (Snow) + incompetence. and then 2-3 Hours back.

            I should have never tried calling U.S. Airways. Raised price in the 30 minutes I waited on phone. From 528 to 577.

            With Merger, will American apply any credit to U.S. Airways? I hate trying to retroactively get money back but booked this as best I could fine.

          2. American Airlines gave me a $50.00 voucher for later use… Said American Airlines and U.S. Airways systems aren’t fully integrated. Not the greatest solution but better than nothing so thank you American.

          3. @elliottc:disqus

            Been a hell of a week for sure. Scheduled for surgery up in Cleveland on Jan 6th. Grandma was ill and had bad feeling. Drove from Cleveland to Detroit and got there at night. Was just doing a “well check”. Next morning (planned to leave) she passed.

            Flew brother in Via Spirit Airlines (Mistake) from IAH – DTW and they stranded him 8 hrs coming and 3 hours returning. Mom flew Delta since she was stuck in Cleveland… Live 4 Hours away. She stayed back as was tired from drive up there.

            Spent the last 9 days helping grandfather and this morning he just said I don’t feel well…and passed away. No one expected it what so ever.

            As I said.. 70 Years to be together…

        1. Condolences. I don’t fly last minute all that often but I’ve used Priceline for flights (you have to be VERY flexible) last minute. I’ve gotten on flights for $250 where the airline was asking over $1,000. You don’t know the airline or the exact flight time so flexibility is a must, but it can save you money. Just keep in mind that Priceline is no changes, no cancellations.

    3. I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandparents. I’m so glad that they were blessed with 70 years of marriage and were able to build positive memories for you and your family.

      I’m not a TA, but what I did when I had to get suddenly from one place to another the last 2 times was to think *flexible*. Is there an airport nearby or within a “short” drive that’s a larger airport, with more available seats or airlines? Short in Nebraska is 1 – 3 hours; that may or may not be an option for you. Otherwise, Priceline or some such might be your only option.

  9. My eldest, an experienced traveler in her 30s, took 2 Southwest trips this year. One flight out of an east coast city was cancelled due to weather. (And it was bad weather) . Southwest, however, told her that they could not get her home for 2 more days. There were plenty of seats the next morning to her destination, but because of the fare type she purchased, those seats were not available unless she paid $50 more. The second time was a flight from Las Vegas to the east coast. Same thing happened—bad weather in her connecting city. Same rules—pay more or wait a few extra days. In both instances she paid up and then wrote to customer service at Southwest who said those are their rules. If you do not like that pay more for a ticket in the future. So not sure why all the admiration for Southwest. They seem to stick to their rules like all the other airlines–even when the problem was beyond the control of the passenger.

    1. Either she or you is mistaken. Southwest doesn’t operate like that. When there are “plenty of seats” on the next available flight to your destination after a weather delay or cancellation, you are rebooked with no charge. You can even do it online at that point. You can also call, in addition to speaking with the airport rep. When you have a cancellation, the fare basis is absolutely irrelevant.
      So one of you is leaving something out. In addition, Southwest doesn’t have ANY sort of $50 fee.

      1. Only thing I can think of is the passenger wanted to fly standby which WN requires you to buy up to their Anytime fare before you can do. This might have been a $50 fare difference. Otherwise, yep, the story doesn’t make sense.

  10. Christopher, this is a bit off topic, but recently Southwest announced it is discontinuing service into three airport effective June 6, 2014. I’ve never seen a story from you on this…I know I have zero rights and I know how you feel about FF programs…but would like to hear your POV onwhy this happens

    1. David, I do try to weigh in on these events when I can, but it happens SO often that it’s very difficult, even if I were to dedicate this blog to airlines (which I can’t). Roundabout way of saying, I’ll try to address these service changes soon.

      1. great Christopher…seems Southwest is having more than their fare share of problems recently…including falling to the bottom of on-time performance ratings…I think they see more opportunity $$$ in picking up gates from the AA/USA merger…

  11. I believe that too much information is a threat to job security. In a world where playing pass the buck is common in all industry, the airline spokespeople aren’t likely to take responsibility for releasing any information without someone above their pay grade knowing first. Who do we, as passengers, have contact with anyhow? We book a ticket – online ususally – no one there. We limit our luggage so no skycap – who may work for the airline or the airport and while he knows everything will pretend to know nothing just to keep his job. If we check luggage, the skycap can do little but check our luggage. We have oru ticket and boarding pass, so, we meet the flight attendant or service attendant taking tickets. Then we meet the flight attendants on board, hear the captain sometime during the flight, and we leave.
    Who exactly do we voice our concerns to? If we have a problem, no one at the airline has any kind of power to help. That’s when we call Chris!

    1. I wish more people would complain to the departments of transportation instead of the airline or do both but maybe things would change if people stop yelling at front line employees, emailing robot inboxes of airline officials and tweeting pictures of airline employees. Implore to Washington is what people should do but it seems like so many people are just clueless that the dot and faa oversee airlines and just complain to them getting nothing changed.

      1. Good point, gracekelly, I’ve never bothered because I didn’t think they cared anyhow. I think I’ll investigate their website and see what it takes. I fly Southwest airlines, and have had no problems with them. I’m a little leery of their unity with Air Tran which were far less people friendly, so we’ll see. Your point is certainly worth noting.

        1. Every time you feel any airline has wronged you I beg you to file a report with the department of transportation at the least if it’s a safety issue log it with the FAA. You can write your representative as well please let airlines know but if people want change they need to go over airline’s heads to government. Tell all your friends and fellow passengers too 🙂 I urge passengers discretely to do so often most won’t but I’ve done my part telling them to. The DOT and the FAA are gonna care alot more than airlines will. Don’t assume your voice won’t matter or won’t be heard everyone thinking this is a problem and complaints aren’t being made they go directly to the airline and look what changes…..nothing. it has to start in Washington.

      2. Most people seem to think that yelling at front-line employees is going to solve things. If anything, it will just get you less immediate assistance.

  12. This article and its hyperbole are ridiculous. As an airline employee, I have no problem with passengers knowing their rights. In fact, I prefer it.

  13. Airlines aren’t the only one who don’t want you to know the rules. It feels like no business does. How many Internet sites have we all been on and, in order to view the site, we have to click on the “I agree” link? I have actually read some before I clicked. Horrors! My father was an attorney (who didn’t make much money because he was always telling his clients the truth) and he told me to NEVER sign a piece of paper until I had read it. He died before the Internet arrived but I’m sure he’s rolling over in his grave knowing that it is impossible to follow that advice nowadays. Even if you do read every word, you still might need Chris’ help to be treated the way you are supposed to be treated under the rules. I have no answers but I appreciate that there is a Chris who helps me know where to look for the answers and call him when I don’t.

  14. I don’t think *all* airlines hate it when you know the rules. I’ve never run into problems on United, or Air Canada, or …. They play by the rules, so do I.

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