Why Airlines Have No Accountability To Get You To Your Destination

by joeheg

No matter if you’re a leisure or business traveler, when you buy an airline ticket, you expect to get from where you are to where you want to go. In addition, you want the airline to get you to your destination around the time for when you booked the flights.

A little-known fact in the “Contract of Carriage” you enter when buying a ticket is that the airline is under no legal requirement to get you to your destination within any time frame.

Don’t believe me? Here’s part of Rule 24 in United’s Contract of Carriage:

  • Without Notice – Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time. UA will promptly provide Passengers the best available information regarding known delays, cancellations, misconnections and diversions, but UA is not liable for any misstatements or other errors or omissions in connection with providing such information. No employee, agent or representative of UA can bind UA legally by reason of any statements relating to flight status or other information. Except to the extent provided in this Rule, UA shall not be liable for failing to operate any flight according to schedule, or for any change in flight schedule, with or without notice to the passenger

Don’t you wish you could live life like that? No responsibility to do what you say you’re going to and no legal recourse when you break the promises you make.

Delta Airlines, often held as the poster child of operational excellence, gives itself amazing leeway in its contract to leave passengers in the lurch:

  • Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to transport you and your baggage from your origin to your destination with reasonable dispatch, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft types, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. Delta may substitute alternate Carriers or aircraft, change its schedules, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket as required by its operations in Delta’s sole discretion. Delta’s sole liability in the event of such changes is set forth in Rule 22. Delta is not responsible or liable for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule or any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination.

That’s why Delta was able to remove our flight from Frankfurt to Detroit from the schedule, reroute us through New York at a different time, and there was absolutely nothing we could do besides canceling the ticket.

If you really want to shake your head at what airlines can get away with, read some of the airlines’ contracts. Such as this one from Allegiant, which says they have the right to strand you at an airport you didn’t want to fly to.

  • If a flight is unable to land at the destination airport and is diverted to another airport, the carriage by air shall, unless the aircraft continues to the original destination, be deemed to be completed when the aircraft arrives at the diversion airport. Carrier may, however, arrange or designate alternative transportation, whether by Carrier’s own service or by other means of transportation specified by Carrier (which may include ground transportation) to transport passengers to the original destination without additional cost.  Exceptions may include situations where alternative transportation is prevented by safety concerns. When alternative transportation to the original destination is provided by or at the direction of Carrier, any arrangements made by one or more passengers on their own will not be paid for or reimbursed by Carrier and are at the passengers’ own risk.

American Airlines made a bit of a stir when it changed the Contract of Carriage to say it didn’t have to get you to your destination.

  • If we or our airline partner fails to operate or delays your arrival more than 4 hours, our sole obligation is to refund the remaining ticket value and any optional fees according to our involuntary refunds policy, subject to our policy for rebooking your delayed / canceled flight.

If you’re delayed by more than 4 hours, they can strand you wherever you are and are only obligated to give you a refund for the part of the ticket you didn’t use.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Southwest’s Contract of Carriage section on Service Interruptions:

Failure to Operate as Scheduled

  • (1) Canceled Flights or Irregular Operations. In the event the Carrier cancels or fails to operate any flight according to Southwest Airlines published schedule, or significantly changes the schedule of any flight, or there is a significant delay, Carrier will, at the request of a Passenger with a confirmed Ticket on such flight, take one of the following actions:
    • (i) Transport the Passenger at no additional charge on Southwest Airlines next flight(s) on which space is available to the Passenger’s intended destination, in accordance with Southwest Airlines established re-accommodation practices; or
    • (ii) Following a request by the Customer, refund the unused portion of the Customer’s fare in accordance with Section 4.c.
  • (2) Diverted Flights. In the event the Carrier diverts any flight, the Carrier, at its sole discretion, will take reasonable steps to transport Passenger on Southwest Airlines next flight(s) on which space is available to his or her intended final destination or to provide reasonable accommodations as approved in writing in advance by Southwest Airlines.
  • (3) Flight Schedule Changes. Flight schedules are subject to change without notice, and times shown are not guaranteed. At times, without prior notice to Passengers, Southwest Airlines may need to substitute other aircraft and may change, add, or omit intermediate stops. The Carrier cannot guarantee that Passengers will make connections to other flights operated by Southwest Airlines or by other airlines. In the event of flight schedule changes or service withdrawals, the Carrier will attempt to notify affected Passengers as early as possible.
  • (4) Limitation of Liability. Except to the extent provided in Section 9.a., the Carrier shall not be liable for any failure or delay in operating any flight, with or without notice, for reasons of aviation safety or when advisable, in its sole discretion, due to Force Majeure Events, as defined above. For the avoidance of doubt, under no circumstances will Carrier be liable to Passenger or Customer for consequential damages.

Surely there must be some federal requirement for airlines to get you to your destination? Right?

Nope. In fact, the Department of Transportation states it quite bluntly on its website.

Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements.

We have the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 to thank for the airlines being totally exempt from leaving passengers stranded with no legal recourse.

  • U.S. domestic air fares (interstate fares, and “overseas” fares to/from U.S. territories) were deregulated by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Public Law 95-504. U.S. carriers do not file their domestic passenger fares and rules with the Department.

While the deregulation of the airlines undoubtedly led to lower pricing and the ability for a greater number of people to travel by air to their destination, it also limited the ability for those same passengers to hold airlines accountable when they don’t keep up their side of the bargain.

Is that fair? Would you be willing to pay more for a ticket if the airline HAD to get you to your destination within a reasonable amount of time? The EU has much stronger penalties for airlines if they don’t get you to your destination on time and airfares there aren’t much higher than they are in the US.

While I used to think that US airlines would continue to write contracts of carriage that say they’re not responsible for anything and passengers would continue to purchase tickets not knowing that doing so means they’re agreeing to those terms, I’m not so sure about it anymore. Passengers are getting fed up about getting stranded by airlines and the Southwest meltdown has triggered a federal investigation.

Airlines will do whatever they can to prevent more regulations, even if that means developing customer-friendly policies when flights are canceled.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

1 comment

Angela November 5, 2021 - 4:12 pm

I usually find that flights are cheaper in the EU and that the regulations must motivate them to get you to your destination in a timely matter because I’ve only ever had 1 flight be late and none canceled except many weeks out (during covid).


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