What are your rights?

Your flight is delayed by more than two hours. What does the airline owe you?

For Jason Chatman, whose flight from Boston to Detroit on Northwest Airlines, which has filed for bankruptcy, was held up for half an afternoon, the answer was: nothing.

“A lot of people were inquiring about the delay, and they were pretty upset,” said Mr. Chatman, a physician’s assistant from Grand Rapids, Mich. “The agents said they were waiting to replace a part in the cockpit. They were not giving us any kind of vouchers or coupons.”

But Northwest’s contract of carriage – the legal agreement between Northwest and passengers – has a different take on his scenario: it promises delayed customers a phone card, an amenity coupon offering the choice of frequent flier miles, a meal at the airport, or a beverage or headset on the aircraft.

Most experienced air travelers know that their rights are spelled out in an airline’s contract of carriage, and they often refer to the document during a dispute with a carrier. But with three of the nation’s major airlines – Delta, Northwest and United – flying under bankruptcy protections, are those contracts still valid? And are troubled carriers under any obligation to follow them?

Yes, they are.

A spokesman for Northwest, Kurt Ebenhoch, said his airline remained bound by its contracts, even in bankruptcy. “If this customer did indeed not receive a service for which he was entitled,” he said of Mr. Chatman’s experience, “we apologize.”

That is true of the other airlines, too. “As far as consumer rights, airlines must honor their contracts, regardless of their bankruptcy status,” said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

The full text of the contract is available on each airline’s Web site or from an airline ticket counter. Although no two contracts look exactly the same, they are generally similar. For example, under Northwest’s contract, passengers must be offered a so-called “service recovery packet” (the one with cards and vouchers, which Mr. Chatman should have received) on delays of between two and four hours. On longer delays, customers are entitled to transport without stopover on the next flight without any additional charge, even if it is on another airline. Delta’s contract offers more or less the same things, with a few minor variations. Delta’s fine print doesn’t specifically mention phone cards, for instance.

Another key issue concerns rescheduled flights. Jeffrey Miller, a travel industry lawyer with Lipshultz & Miller, a law firm in Columbia, Md., says bankrupt airlines typically cut routes, rescheduling passengers on flights with stopovers or even layovers. “If there are significant changes to an itinerary, a carrier has to refund the ticket price upon request,” he said. That, too, is detailed in the airline contract. For example, Delta announced two weeks ago that it would cut some flights to save fuel, after refinery damage in the Gulf caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But there are significant differences in how passengers address a grievance with a bankrupt airline. “The obligations airlines have to their passengers do not change with a bankruptcy,” said Timothy Eble, a class-action lawyer in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “However, the ability of a passenger to do anything about an airline failing to meet its obligations changes dramatically.”

That is because passengers who want to recover money they have paid to a bankrupt airline have to file a claim with a bankruptcy court, according to Thomas Dickerson, a New York State judge who is the author of “Travel Law” (Law Journal Press, 2005). This can be a daunting proposition for someone who just wants to fly home for the holidays without having to spend half a day in Dallas. Fortunately, bankruptcy law gives some priority to smaller unsecured claims – $1,800 for each individual – for items paid for but not delivered, such as a flight that never took off. That amount rises to $2,100 after Oct. 17, Judge Dickerson says..

Credit cards also usually come to the aid of customers with useless tickets, helping them dispute the charges and without first filing a claim in bankruptcy court, he says.

If an airline goes out of business entirely, there are rules in place that protect your itinerary. The law requires other airlines to accept your ticket on a space-available basis, after a charge of between $25 and $50, according to Judge Dickerson. But he warns that the rule is scheduled to expire Nov. 19.

With two smaller airlines — Spirit Airlines and Independence Air – believed by analysts to be on the verge of bankruptcy filings, that could become an option some passengers will soon need to consider.

Still, are airlines breaking their own rules? Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in travel law, says he believes passenger rights are among the first casualties of a Chapter 11 filing. “When it comes to your rights, the airlines do whatever they want when they’re in bankruptcy,” he said. “They ignore customer relations. They ignore customer service. They ignore their own rules.”

Indeed, during the first round of bankruptcies induced by Sept. 11, the Department of Transportation issued a memo reminding carriers that that when they make major changes in schedules or itineraries, affected passengers are entitled to a full refund.

Mr. Anolik recommends contacting the government directly when an airline refuses to honor its obligations. Complaints can be filed with the Department of Transportation by e-mail at airconsumer@dot.gov or by telephone at (202) 366-2220. He said he had witnessed Transportation Department officials calling an airline ticket counter moments after receiving a complaint and insisting that a passenger be offered carriage on a flight or a refund, where appropriate.

But Mr. Mosley of the Transportation Department says that so far, his agency has no evidence that the current group of bankrupt airlines is breaking the rules. And the airline industry insists that its troubled carriers are flying by the book. “It’s no secret that airlines are trying to save money where they can,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry. “But not at the expense of their passengers’ rights, and not at the expense of their contracts with passengers.”

Mr. Chatman, the Detroit-bound passenger, said he was surprised when he received a letter from Northwest a week after he returned. “They apologized for the delay and the inconvenience that it caused,” he said. “They said they were striving to maintain their high levels of customer service. And they gave me 1,000 frequent flier miles for all the trouble.”

Your flight is delayed by more than two hours. What does the airline owe you?

For Jason Chatman, whose flight from Boston to Detroit on Northwest Airlines, which has filed for bankruptcy, was held up for half an afternoon, the answer was: nothing.

“A lot of people were inquiring about the delay, and they were pretty upset,” said Mr. Chatman, a physician’s assistant from Grand Rapids, Mich. “The agents said they were waiting to replace a part in the cockpit. They were not giving us any kind of vouchers or coupons.”

But Northwest’s contract of carriage – the legal agreement between Northwest and passengers – has a different take on his scenario: it promises delayed customers a phone card, an amenity coupon offering the choice of frequent flier miles, a meal at the airport, or a beverage or headset on the aircraft.

Most experienced air travelers know that their rights are spelled out in an airline’s contract of carriage, and they often refer to the document during a dispute with a carrier. But with three of the nation’s major airlines – Delta, Northwest and United – flying under bankruptcy protections, are those contracts still valid? And are troubled carriers under any obligation to follow them?

Yes, they are.

A spokesman for Northwest, Kurt Ebenhoch, said his airline remained bound by its contracts, even in bankruptcy. “If this customer did indeed not receive a service for which he was entitled,” he said of Mr. Chatman’s experience, “we apologize.”

That is true of the other airlines, too. “As far as consumer rights, airlines must honor their contracts, regardless of their bankruptcy status,” said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

The full text of the contract is available on each airline’s Web site or from an airline ticket counter. Although no two contracts look exactly the same, they are generally similar. For example, under Northwest’s contract, passengers must be offered a so-called “service recovery packet” (the one with cards and vouchers, which Mr. Chatman should have received) on delays of between two and four hours. On longer delays, customers are entitled to transport without stopover on the next flight without any additional charge, even if it is on another airline. Delta’s contract offers more or less the same things, with a few minor variations. Delta’s fine print doesn’t specifically mention phone cards, for instance.

Another key issue concerns rescheduled flights. Jeffrey Miller, a travel industry lawyer with Lipshultz & Miller, a law firm in Columbia, Md., says bankrupt airlines typically cut routes, rescheduling passengers on flights with stopovers or even layovers. “If there are significant changes to an itinerary, a carrier has to refund the ticket price upon request,” he said. That, too, is detailed in the airline contract. For example, Delta announced two weeks ago that it would cut some flights to save fuel, after refinery damage in the Gulf caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But there are significant differences in how passengers address a grievance with a bankrupt airline. “The obligations airlines have to their passengers do not change with a bankruptcy,” said Timothy Eble, a class-action lawyer in Mount Pleasant, S.C. “However, the ability of a passenger to do anything about an airline failing to meet its obligations changes dramatically.”

That is because passengers who want to recover money they have paid to a bankrupt airline have to file a claim with a bankruptcy court, according to Thomas Dickerson, a New York State judge who is the author of “Travel Law” (Law Journal Press, 2005). This can be a daunting proposition for someone who just wants to fly home for the holidays without having to spend half a day in Dallas. Fortunately, bankruptcy law gives some priority to smaller unsecured claims – $1,800 for each individual – for items paid for but not delivered, such as a flight that never took off. That amount rises to $2,100 after Oct. 17, Judge Dickerson says..

Credit cards also usually come to the aid of customers with useless tickets, helping them dispute the charges and without first filing a claim in bankruptcy court, he says.

If an airline goes out of business entirely, there are rules in place that protect your itinerary. The law requires other airlines to accept your ticket on a space-available basis, after a charge of between $25 and $50, according to Judge Dickerson. But he warns that the rule is scheduled to expire Nov. 19.

With two smaller airlines — Spirit Airlines and Independence Air – believed by analysts to be on the verge of bankruptcy filings, that could become an option some passengers will soon need to consider.

Still, are airlines breaking their own rules? Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in travel law, says he believes passenger rights are among the first casualties of a Chapter 11 filing. “When it comes to your rights, the airlines do whatever they want when they’re in bankruptcy,” he said. “They ignore customer relations. They ignore customer service. They ignore their own rules.”

Indeed, during the first round of bankruptcies induced by Sept. 11, the Department of Transportation issued a memo reminding carriers that that when they make major changes in schedules or itineraries, affected passengers are entitled to a full refund.

Mr. Anolik recommends contacting the government directly when an airline refuses to honor its obligations. Complaints can be filed with the Department of Transportation by e-mail at airconsumer@dot.gov or by telephone at (202) 366-2220. He said he had witnessed Transportation Department officials calling an airline ticket counter moments after receiving a complaint and insisting that a passenger be offered carriage on a flight or a refund, where appropriate.

But Mr. Mosley of the Transportation Department says that so far, his agency has no evidence that the current group of bankrupt airlines is breaking the rules. And the airline industry insists that its troubled carriers are flying by the book. “It’s no secret that airlines are trying to save money where they can,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the airline industry. “But not at the expense of their passengers’ rights, and not at the expense of their contracts with passengers.”

Mr. Chatman, the Detroit-bound passenger, said he was surprised when he received a letter from Northwest a week after he returned. “They apologized for the delay and the inconvenience that it caused,” he said. “They said they were striving to maintain their high levels of customer service. And they gave me 1,000 frequent flier miles for all the trouble.”

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