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Your (Lack of) Rights as an Airline Passenger

by Jack Penning

Posted on March 10, 2006 at 4:29 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 4 at 2:46 PM

A friend of mine, named Carol, flew from Savannah, Georgia, back to Portland this week, after visiting with her family in the southeast. She took Continental, through its Newark hub, not only because it offered a good fare, but because of its reputation for good customer service. Continental is one of the few US airlines that still offers full-service on its flights, including hot meals. But it turns out, the service wasn't even up to the standards you'd expect on the cheapest of "no-frills" carriers.

Carol assures me the on-board product was just fine. It was the way Carol was treated on the ground that made her trip so miserable.

Carol's flight left Savannah just after noon on Wednesday... on-time... no issues. She arrived in Newark a little more than two-hours later... around 2:30pm. When she booked her flight, she was scheduled to leave for PDX at 5:30pm. Carol was expecting a three hour layover in Newark. But when she checked the departure monitor... it showed the Portland flight leaving not at 5:30... but at 7:10pm. An hour and 40 minutes later. Not a delay. The airline had changed Carol's schedule... without ever telling her.

Airlines change departure and arrival times frequently... at least a few times a year. In that respect, Carol's story is not uncommon. What is uncommon is the fact that Continental didn't bother to let Carol know about the change. Normally an airline will send both a hard-copy letter, and an e-mail, informing passengers when their flights are changed. Carol says Continental did neither. Carol’s layover in Newark was re-scheduled for 4 hours and 40 minutes... and, by the time she found out, there was nothing she could do about it... except sit and wait.

Carol's story got me thinking: did Continental violate a law by not informing her of the changes to her flight? I did some research. What I found isn't just surprising... but also frustrating for the thousands of passengers who have similar problems with the airlines.

The airlines aren't required to tell you anything. Continental is not alone. Once you buy a ticket, your airline can change the departure time, change the arrival time, and it isn't required to offer you a different option, or a refund.

In fact, contrary to the widespread belief, there is no passengers' bill of rights.

In 1999, some members of Congress tried to pass a passengers' bill of rights. It laid-out a set of specific rules, by which the airlines were to handle each and every cancellation or delay. Quoting from the bill, it would have made "an air carrier liable to each aircraft passenger for an excessive departure or arrival delay of the aircraft." The bill went onto require "an air carrier that cancels a flight on the date it is scheduled for reasons other than safety to provide each passenger air transportation in a timely manner to the destination for which such passenger purchased the air transportation and a refund of the amount paid for air transportation."

The bill never made it out of the House. It's big opponent? Continental Airlines.

Continental's Chairman and CEO at the time, Gordon Bethune, wrote, "[Continental's] employees recognize our ability to provide excellent customer service without the laws of the nation being punitively held to us."

Despite that, the American Society of Travel Agents is still fighting vigorously for a passengers' bill of rights. On its website, it says passengers deserve "timely, complete and truthful information and courteous assistance regarding delays, cancellations, and equipment changes."

It goes onto say, "the consumer keeps the bargain with the airline by paying for the ticket. If the airline fails to provide the transportation it promised, the consumer is entitled to know why, and to adjust travel plans accordingly."

That kind of a law could have made Carol's trip through Newark a lot more pleasant than Continental's "excellent customer service" did.

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