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There are few things that annoy air passengers more than flight delays, cancellations and overbooking. In Europe, passengers are supposed to be compensated under the so-called EC261/2004 regulation. However, I suspect that many readers share my belief that these airline obligations are rarely honoured straight away. How many times have you heard the term “extraordinary circumstances” used as an excuse to avoid prompt payment? But this post isn’t about chasing Ryanair or Vueling through the courts for EU compensation. Instead I wanted to highlight the possibilities when travelling outside of Europe, specifically in the United States.
Remember the doctor who refused to disembark a United Airlines flight? It was certainly horrible PR for the airline. But what does the US Department of Transportation have to say about overbooked flights?
When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.
OK. Fair enough. And given the Dr. Dao debacle, most US-based airlines will offer whatever is necessary to entice sufficient volunteers willing to be “bumped”. But even the statutory maximum of $1,350 in cash (for a long-haul flight) can be quite compelling. Some travel hackers even target specific flights with the aim of being “bumped” for compensation. But what about flight delays, missed connections and cancellations?
Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control. Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.
In other words, the airline might decide to feed or accomodate you, but you essentially have no rights at all. Forget about the “duty of care” that you might be accustomed to in Europe. So, if all flights from a certain American airport are grounded due to snow or similar weather-related challenges, good luck getting the airline to pay for your hotel. There simply won’t be enough nearby hotel beds for all of the stranded passengers…
But You Said to Ask for Compensation?!?!
I most certainly did… Even though you don’t have “rights”, you can always ask for compensation after the fact. And that compensation can often take the form of something that the typical InsideFlyer reader values highly – airline miles – but that customer service agents at the major US airlines seem to be permitted to hand out freely.
A Recent Case Study
In August, I flew from Las Vegas to Vancouver via Seattle on Alaska Airlines. My 2 p.m. flight from Las Vegas to Seattle was delayed for a couple of hours, so I asked for a food voucher and got myself a sandwich. We eventually boarded, only for the captain to eventually advise that we needed to deplane because the aircraft had a technical issue that was going to take awhile to fix.
I got off the plane ASAP and went to speak to an agent. It’s worth remembering that, when things go wrong whilst in the US, airport (and telephone) agents have a substantial amount of discretion. You can rebook on practically any flight you prefer. Within reason of course… But as long as you aren’t asking to endorse your ticket over to a competitor airline, practically anything is allowed… You can also request Original Routing Credit if you are in the middle of a mileage run but end up flying direct – read here for details.
Rather than wait around for the plane to be fixed, I asked to be rebooked for the first flights leaving the next morning. I didn’t ask for Alaska to pay for my hotel. It was only 4:30pm, so the chances of the agent agreeing to that were slim. Besides, hotels in Las Vegas mid-week are quite cheap, so I jumped on the opportunity to pick up a cheap Hilton Honors stay credit and 2,500 Lufthansa miles.
The next morning I flew to Vancouver (via Seattle) without incident. A week or two later I remembered that I hadn’t requested compensation. I checked with FlightAware – a required website for avgeeks (and compensation chasers) – to determine what had happened with my original flights. It turns out that my flight from Las Vegas to Seattle eventually departed at 10 p.m., for a 1 a.m. arrival into Seattle, far too late to make any connection into Vancouver.
Besides feeling pretty good about having premptively avoided another five hours at the airport and a mess upon arrival to Seattle, I knew that I had grounds for requesting compensation.
What Did I Ask For, And What Should You Consider Doing as Well?
I used a contact form on the Alaska Airlines website and made my request. I explained what had happened to my flight(s) and the financial consequences to me of the delay. I concluded with…
I recognise that you are not obligated to reimburse me for my hotel costs. However I would request that you consider compensating me for the 16+ hour delay in reaching my final destination of Vancouver. I would most appreciate receiving Alaska Airlines miles since I would find it difficult to use a travel voucher.
A couple of weeks later, I noticed something extra in my mileage account…
Being compensated in cash is hard. Airlines (and most other big businesses) will only hand over cash when legally required to do so. Many airlines will offer a travel voucher – a monetary credit only good on that specific airline. Some travellers will consider this to be near-cash. Others will never get around to using the voucher…
However, receiving compensation in Avios is even harder. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, etc, cannot simply press a few buttons and magically issue you some Avios. But their agents most certainly can issue their own mileage currency as compensation. And they often do… so focus on that.
So, thanks to suffering through a three-hour airport delay, not minding a next-day arrival (saving a family member from waiting at the airport to see if I would make my connection) and some fast thinking, I received a bunch of Hilton points, 2,500 Lufthansa miles and 8,000 Alaska miles – all for the £75 cost of an extra hotel night in Las Vegas. That makes this travel hacker a happy Alaska Airlines flyer…