Whaddya know about airline passenger rights? Not much

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By Christopher Elliott

Beyond the fact that you don’t have too many, what do you know about your rights as an airline passenger? If you said “not much,” then you’re in good company.

Like Judy Williams. When the airline lost her luggage en route to a conference in Asheville, N.C., a representative promised to find it. But by the time she was reunited with her suitcase two days later, she’d already attended a professional conference wearing jeans and a T-shirt — not ideal attire for an attorney.

Did I say attorney? I sure did. Even someone who practices law doesn’t necessarily know her rights.

“The airline said it would reimburse me the cost of half of one of my outfits,” she says. “Was that fair? I wish I’d known what my rights were.”

Empowering passengers with knowledge

The issue of what we know — and should know — will be considered at an upcoming meeting of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection (ACACP), a congressional committee that advises Congress on air travel consumer issues. Advocates want airlines and airports to do one simple thing: Tell consumers what their rights are when they fly.

Williams probably had more rights than her airline led her to believe.

For bags missing more than 24 hours, an airline normally pays for a change of clothes, and if the loss is permanent, federal law requires the airline to refund her baggage fee and sets the limit of liability at $3,400.

Airlines are profiting from passenger ignorance, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a non-profit organization that advocates for air travelers. “It can’t continue,” he says. (Related: The real reason legacy airlines are awful.)

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As the consumer representative on the ACACP, he’s one of the advocates pushing airports and the Transportation Department to place billboards in American airports that notify passengers of their rights.

(Disclosure: I’m co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance and serve as its volunteer ombudsman.)

The proposed notices are modeled on a voluntary European Union campaign launched in 2007 to inform passengers of their travel rights.

A U.S.-based campaign would notify travelers of their rights in the event they’re denied boarding, have their checked luggage lost, or experience a flight delay or cancellation.

But it’s easier said than done. Some of your rights are a work in progress, with new proposed government rules expected to be released soon. Even travel experts can’t keep up.

Also, something as simple as tacking posters to an airport wall would require the blessings of airlines, airports, local municipalities that own the airports, and the federal government.

Airlines resist air travel rights billboards at airports

As you might expect, airlines are cool to the idea. Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group, says U.S. airlines have “long supported passenger rights” and that today, customers know exactly what they are buying when they book a ticket. “Information for consumers about their rights is available on every major airline’s website and is easily accessible,” she says. But the industry would oppose a mandate to place posters at airports because it would be overkill.

Debby McElroy, the interim president of the Airports Council International-North America, a trade group for U.S. airports, says her organization also questions the need for the posters.

Most of the spaces where the signs would appear are leased by airlines, and those under the airport’s control are prime spots for ads, which airports rely on for income. Still, she says, “We look forward to discussing this.”

The Transportation Department is already using every means available to inform passengers of their rights. That includes a recently redesigned Aviation Consumer Protection website dot .gov/airconsumer) with information on consumers’ rights, including how to file a complaint with an airline. When passengers complain, they also receive a brochure called “Fly Rights,” which outlines their rights as air travelers. (Here’s our guide with the best travel advice.)

“We’ll continue our efforts to make sure airline consumers are aware of their rights,” says Bill Mosley, a department spokesman.

Perhaps a better question would be: Why would anyone not want to tell passengers about their rights?

It’s clear that everyone down the line has done what’s required of them. Airlines post their policies and contracts of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the air carrier — on their websites.

Should airlines be required to post passenger rights at airports?

The government has followed every congressional mandate on air travel rights. And airports have cooperated with authorities when required to do so.

But what’s the harm in more information? Passengers such as John McNeal say there’s only one beneficiary from keeping passengers in the dark: the airline industry.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Of course there should be a requirement for airlines to post passengers’ rights in airports. The only reason airlines would object is that it limits their ability to ignore their obligations.” (McNeal is in a position to know. Like Williams, he’s an attorney, but also is a retired assistant attorney general for Illinois.)

I’m not convinced this is the only reason why airlines, airports or indeed, the Transportation Department, might resist this idea. After all, a project like this would take time and cost money, both of which always seem to be in short supply.

But the truth is undeniable. Few air travelers know all their rights.

And that’s wrong.

Do airlines try to prevent us from knowing our rights when we fly?

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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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