Travelers on US flights don’t have as many legal protections as their EU counterparts, but US regulations do grant a few generous passenger rights, particularly regarding denied boarding and luggage.
US Air Passenger Rights
Passenger Rights for Delayed US Flights
US regulations don’t have a lot to say about air passenger rights regarding flight delays. It’s really up to the airlines’ discretion as to how they compensate (or don’t compensate) their passengers. The one exception is in situations regarding tarmac delays, as explained below.
Any flight departing from or flying to a US airport is covered by US regulations concerning tarmac delays.
Whenever your flight remains on the ground at a US airport with passengers aboard, the airline must provide the following:
- Food, water, access to toilets, and any necessary medical attention within 2 hours of the start of the delay.
- Status updates every 30 minutes, including what is causing the delay, if known.
After 3 hours (4 hours for international flights), the plane must return to the gate to let you off. However, there are exceptions to these rules if the pilot or airport staff determine that there are safety, security, or air traffic control considerations.
Passenger Rights for Denied Boarding in the US
In order to make sure their flights are as full as possible, airlines often sell more tickets than there are seats on a plane. This is called overbooking and it often results in passengers being “bumped” or denied boarding for their flights. If this happens to you, you have multiple rights that you should know about.
When it comes to boarding denials, flights with US carriers between US cities and international flights originating in the United States are both covered.
Only boarding denials due to overbooked flights are covered.
Passengers are only eligible for compensation if they are denied boarding due to the airline having overbooked the flight in question. In these situations, airlines must ask for volunteers to surrender their seats before they can start bumping passengers against their wishes.
Only involuntary boarding denials are covered.
If you volunteer to surrender your seat in exchange for a refund, an alternate flight, or other benefits, you also surrender your right to compensation under US regulations.
Provided your flight is eligible, the compensation amount is dependent on two factors:
- The difference in scheduled arrival time at your destination* compared to your original itinerary, if you accept re-routing on another flight
- Whether your flight is a US domestic flight or an international flight
We love charts, so here’s one that explains how much you’re eligible for based on your flight details:
|Length of delay at destination compared to original flight|
|Type of flight||0 – 1 hours||More than 1 and less than 2 hours||More than 2 and less than 4 hours||More than 4 hours|
|Domestic||No compensation||200% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $675||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350|
|International||No compensation||200% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $675||200% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $675||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350|
* “Destination” means your final destination or the first place where your journey includes a planned interruption with a stop-over of more than four hours.
If the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, you are entitled to 400% of the one-way fare price, not to exceed $1,350 as well as any optional fees paid as part of your reservation (e.g. bag fees, seat upgrades, etc.).
You’re entitled to cash, so don’t feel obligated to accept travel vouchers or any other alternative forms of compensation. You should be able to request payment from the airline staff at the airport once your travel arrangements have been determined. Or you can file a claim later—we’d be glad to help you with it.
Like we said earlier, you should be able to collect your compensation at the time of your flight disruption, so you ideally wouldn’t have to go through the claim process (see “How much am I entitled to for my boarding denial?” above). However, if you didn’t get paid at the airport, not to worry—you can still file a claim after the fact.
You can expect some pushback from the airline—even when the law is on your side, they might not be enthusiastic about paying you. To give your claim the best chance of succeeding, here are a few tips to follow:
- Hold onto any documents related to the disrupted flight and any alternative flights offered, such as e-tickets and boarding passes.
- Ask the ground crew for information about what is causing the issue.
- Keep a few notes about the disruption, including the difference in scheduled arrival times between your original flight and any alternative flights arranged for you. Any information you can collect—like any communications from the airline confirming the disruption—will be useful for your claim.
For domestic flights, this varies from one airline to the next. It’s a good idea to refer to the Conditions of Carriage for your carrier. You can find these on your airline’s website.
Passenger Rights for Luggage Problems on US Flights
Even if your flight goes smoothly, your luggage may not be so lucky. Passengers on US flights have a number of rights when it comes to banged-up, delayed, and lost bags, as explained in the following sections.
This section deals with domestic flights with US carriers between US cities, which are covered by US travel regulations. International flights originating in the United States are covered by the Montreal Convention, in most cases.
If your checked or carry-on bags are damaged while in the care of airline personnel, the carrier is responsible for repairing, replacing, or compensating you for the bag, at their discretion.
If your luggage doesn’t show up on time at your destination, the airline is responsible for providing you with up-to-date information on where your bags are. In the meantime, if you need to replace essential items that were in your bags, like toiletries, the airline should reimburse you for those costs, as well.
If the airline loses your luggage, they are responsible for compensating you for the bags and their contents, provided you can provide documentation of the items lost and their value.
You compensation amount will be negotiated between you and the airline and will vary based on the situation. US regulations cap the airline’s liability per passenger at $3,500, so that’s the most you’re likely to get in any case. Airlines will also work to keep their costs down by paying depreciated value for things and not covering certain types of items at all, like jewelry or electronics. For more information on what is not covered, check your airline’s Conditions of Carriage on its website.
Upon inspecting the damage to your bags, the airline will offer to replace the item or repair the damage, based on what is most cost-effective for them. If replacing your bag, they will most likely offer you a depreciated amount based on the current retail price and how long you have owned it. The same goes for any damaged items in your luggage, although it’s important to note that there are a lot of things that airlines will not cover at all under most circumstances, like fragile items or electronics.
If it is necessary to replace items that were in your luggage and are needed immediately, the airline will reimburse you for any reasonable costs to do so. This would include items like toiletries, a change of underwear, etc. Although the compensation amount is unlikely to come anywhere near the airline’s $3,500 liability limit, they will probably try to keep their costs down by paying reduced amounts based on future use considerations and depreciated values, where possible. In some cases, airlines may also refund any checked baggage fees, although policies vary from one airline to the next.
Airlines will reimburse you for your lost bags and their contents up to $3,500, provided you can provide documentation of the items. In addition, you can claim reimbursement for replacement of necessary items and a refund of your checked baggage fees, if applicable. Again, the airline will try to limit the compensation amount based on future use considerations and depreciated value for items.
If you’re transporting something worth more than $3,500, you have the option to declare a higher value for your luggage and items when you check your bags at the airport. The airline will usually provide you with a higher coverage amount for a fee. Alternatively, you can take out a separate travel insurance policy that covers luggage damage and loss, although you probably won’t be able to get compensation from both the airline and your insurance policy. It’ll be one or the other.
To give your claim the best chance of succeeding, here are a few tips to follow:
- Hold onto any documents related to your flight, such as e-tickets or boarding passes, checked luggage receipts, Property Irregularity Report, and your file reference number.
- Assemble a list of contents for your luggage, as well as any supporting documentation such as sales receipts or photos of your packed items.
- Hold onto your receipts for any things you need to purchase to replace necessary items that were in your bags, like toiletries, etc.
Report the damage as soon as possible after receiving your bags. It’s best to do so while you’re still at the airport. Requirements vary from one airline to another, with some demanding that you report damage within 4 hours of receiving your luggage, while others allow up to 24 hours to file a claim. Check your airline’s policy on its website.
Delayed and lost luggage
If your bags do not show up on the baggage carousel, notify the airline as soon as possible, ideally before you leave the airport. You’ll be given a file reference number and may have to fill out a Property Irregularity Report (PIR), both of which you’ll need to hold onto. The deadlines for filing reimbursement claims for delayed and lost luggage vary from one airline to the next, so check your carrier’s policy on its website.