You don’t know your airline rights. At least that’s what a new poll from AirHelp, a passenger rights advocacy site, says.
A troubling 81% of airline passengers are unaware of their air travel rights, according to the study. And that’s a problem.
Think you’re the exception? OK, here’s a pop quiz. What if your airline overbooks your flight to Los Angeles and leaves you stranded in Dallas overnight?
If you said the air carrier owes you overnight accommodations and meal vouchers, you’d probably only be half right. When you’re bumped from a flight, and delayed by more than four hours, you’re also owed a refund of 400% of the one-way fare (to a maximum of $1,350), according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).
“Lack of awareness” is a problem
“Despite airlines‘ legal obligation to properly communicate rights to travelers, Americans‘ lack of awareness continues to be a major issue,” says Christian Nielsen, AirHelp’s chief legal officer.
There’s a silver lining to this apparent lack of consumer literacy, though. Last year in the same survey, 92% of American passengers didn’t know their air travel rights, according to AirHelp. That’s an 11% improvement in just one year.
What’s going on?
“There’s been a lot more focus this year on consumer rights,” says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, a travel advocacy organization in Washington.
What the survey says about your airline rights
Still, the lack of knowledge is problematic. According to the AirHelp survey:
- Only 55% of Americans who have been on a disrupted flight and thought their flight disruption was eligible have gone through the process of filing for compensation.
- Just 45% percent of Americans who think they are eligible for compensation file claims.
- Americans are 12% less likely to file claims than European airline passengers.
“Air passengers across the globe are constantly being mistreated by the airlines,” adds Nielsen. “Most travelers are not even aware of how they can fight back and be compensated when they are taken advantage of.”
What don’t you know about your airline rights?
What don’t air travelers know? There are a series of small but critically important rules and regulations for air travel.
In the United States, few passengers know that the DOT regulates airlines, or what the rules are. They include:
- If you change your mind about a flight within 24 hours after booking, you can get a full refund for most flights.
- If you’re denied boarding on an overbooked flight, and delayed more than four hours, the airline is required to pay you 400% of the one-way fare, not to exceed $1,350. There are higher compensation levels for longer delays.
- If an airline cancels your flight and you decide not to travel, the airline must give you a full refund within a week.
In Europe, perhaps the biggest unknown consumer protection rule is EC 261, a European consumer regulation that obligates airlines to pay passengers compensation of up to $700 for many types of flight disruptions.
I describe these hidden travel rights in more detail on my consumer advocacy site. Airlines won’t tell you about these rules because they want you to accept whatever they want to give you. (In many cases, that’s nothing.) They want to keep your money, offer you vouchers that expire within a year, or refuse you your rightful compensation.
In other words, they don’t want you to know your airline rights.
Why more passengers know their airline rights now
The new AirHelp poll may seem discouraging, but it’s actually not. Roughly 80 percent of air travelers fly only once a year. That means that the ones who need to know about airline rules do know about them, according to Leocha.
But why? There are several reasons for increased awareness.
DOT’s new outreach efforts. Although the DOT has effectively stopped creating helpful new airline consumer regulations under the Trump administration, the agency has been busy promoting the current rules. In the last two years, DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division has updated its website, adding new pages that explain your existing rights. This action allowed consumers to easily find useful information on their rights.
The rise of consumer advocacy groups. In the last few years, advocacy organizations such as Travelers United and Flyersrights.org have banded together to promote travel rights literacy. Together, the groups have been pushing for common-sense changes, such as posting notifications of your travel rights at airport ticket counters. They are also talking to media organizations about travel rights and getting the word out.
The public threat of congressional action. In 2016, Congress considered legislation that would have required airlines to notify passengers of their consumer rights, as I noted in my Washington Post column at the time. The idea is still alive and may make it into future legislation, perhaps the next Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The reason? Some members of Congress believe airlines are intentionally downplaying or even concealing their customers’ rights. They want to put a stop to that.
Sites like AirHelp have also been helpful in making these issues public. Unfortunately, passengers only find out about these resources after their flights — and sometimes too late to get compensation.
What to make of this year’s poll results
I asked Nielsen what he thought this year’s poll results meant. He said that 9 in 10 Americans have flown, yet Americans are 22% less likely to know their rights than European flyers. “Given this number, we felt it was important to see how passenger awareness has changed and continue to focus our efforts on education,” he says.
Digging deeper into the data, AirHelp’s survey showed that only 55% of Americans facing a significant flight disruption were informed about their rights by the airline.
“Airlines must be held accountable,” he added.
Which airlines are the best at informing passengers of their rights?
If you want to know your airline rights, will airlines help? It depends, says Nielsen.
“Some airlines consistently perform well while others fail to inform travelers of their rights,” he said.
For example, he says Ryanair tried to mislead travelers by telling them they would not be able to claim compensation for disruptions caused by strikes. At the same time, the carrier introduced terms in their contract of carriage that prohibited passengers from seeking help from third parties.
“None of that will stand up in a court of law and just shows the length of how far some airlines will go to keep passengers from exercising their rights,” he adds.
In its last AirHelp Score report, it found that SAS Scandinavian Airlines, WestJet, and American Airlines are the best at processing compensation claims.
“However globally, nearly half of all valid compensation claims are wrongfully rejected by airlines, leaving yet another area for improvement,” he says.
So what should airline passengers make of these results?
“Since the airlines are not doing their part, passengers must take it upon themselves to learn about and understand their rights,” says Nielsen.