A Consumer Guide to Air Travel


1.      Air Fares

2.      Schedules and Tickets

3.      Delayed and Canceled Flights

4.      Overbooking

5.      Baggage

6.      Smoking

7.      Passengers with Disabilities

8.      Frequent-Flyer Programs

9.      Contract Terms

10.  Travel Scams

11.  To Your Health

12.  Airline Safety and Security

13.  Complaining

14.  Other Sources of Information


We make every effort to keep Fly-Rights up to date, but airlines frequently change the way they do business. So by the time you read this, a few procedures we explain may be different.


The elimination of government regulation of airline fares and routes has resulted in lower fares and a wide variety of price/service options. In this new commercial environment, consumers have had to take a more active role in choosing their air service by learning to ask a number of questions.

- Am I more concerned with price or with schedule? Am I willing to fly at a less convenient time if it means saving $25?

- Will the airline penalize me for changing my reservation?

- Will I have to pay extra for checked bags or for seat assignments?

- What will the airline do for me if it cancels my flight?

This booklet is designed to explain your rights and responsibilities as an air traveler and to show you how to avoid problems. We hope it helps you become a more resourceful consumer.


Because of the emphasis on price competition, consumers may choose from a wide variety of air fares. It is easy to compare fares and schedules on the Web, using airline web sites or third-party reservation services.† You can also contact a travel agent, another ticket outlet, or the airlines serving the places you want to travel to. (Some airlines and other outlets charge a fee for tickets purchased by means other than the Web.† On the other hand, a few airlines may charge a fee for tickets that are purchased via the Web.) You can also be alert to newspaper and radio ads, where airlines advertise many of the discounts available in your city. Finally, be alert to new companies serving the market. They may offer lower fares or different services than older established airlines. Here are some tips to help you decide among air fares:

* Be flexible in your travel plans in order to get the lowest fare. The best deals may be limited to travel on certain days of the week (particularly midweek or Saturday) or certain hours of the day (e.g., early-morning flights or overnight "red eyes"). When searching flights and fares on the Web you can usually specify whether your dates are flexible, and in the search results the fares are generally listed from lowest to highest. If you are shopping by phone or in person, after you get a fare quote ask the reservations agent if you could save even more by leaving a day earlier or later, or by taking a different flight on the same day.

* Plan as far ahead as you can. Some airlines set aside only a few seats on each flight at the lower rates. The real bargains often sell out very quickly. On the other hand, air carriers sometimes make more discount seats available later. If you had decided against a trip because the price you wanted was not available when you first inquired, try again, especially just before the advance-purchase deadline. Flights for holiday periods may sell out months ahead of time, although in many cases you can find a seat if you elect to travel on the holiday itself, e.g. Christmas Day or Thanksgiving Day.

* Some airlines may have discounts that others don't offer. In a large metropolitan area, the fare could depend on which airport you use. Also, a connection (change of planes) or a one-stop flight is sometimes cheaper than a nonstop.

* Be aware that many airlines charge extra for checked baggage, advance seat assignments, meals, or other services. †Airlines include information on these fees on their web sites.

* If you have a connection involving two airlines, ask whether your bags will be transferred. Ask whether your ticket will be good on another carrier at no extra charge if your flight is canceled or experiences a lengthy delay, and whether the first airline will pay for meals or a hotel room during the wait.

* Most discount fares are non-refundable; if you buy one of these fares and you later cancel your trip, you will not get your money back. In many cases you can apply your ticket to another trip in the future, but there may be a steep fee.† Many fares also have a penalty for changing flights or dates even if you don't want a refund. You may also have to pay any difference in air fares if your fare-type is not available on the new flight.

* After you buy your ticket, call the airline or travel agent once or twice before departure to check the fare. Fares change all the time, and if the fare you paid goes down before you fly, some airlines will refund the difference (or give you a transportation credit for that amount). But you have to ask. †

Differences in air fares can be substantial. Careful comparison shopping among airlines does take time, but it can lead to real savings.


Once you decide when and where you want to go, and which airline you want to use, you will usually have to purchase a ticket in order to hold a confirmed seat. However, many large airlines will hold a reservation for 24 hours or so without payment. Others require payment at the time you make a reservation but will provide a full refund if you cancel in the first day or so.† When available, both of these procedures permit you to hold a seat and a fare for a short time while continuing to shop for a better deal. Be aware of the following considerations when selecting a flight and buying a ticket:

* Check the on-time performance percentage for flights that you are considering. On-time performance percentages for individual flights of the larger U.S. airlines are available by phone from those airlines upon request. These airlines are also required to post this information on their web sites, with special notice for flights that experienced serious delays or cancellations. If you are deciding between two flights with similar schedules and fares, you may want to choose the one with the better on-time record. (Only the largest U.S. airlines are required to maintain and provide on-time performance data.) You can see aggregate information about airline and airport on-time performance and a list of the most frequently delayed flights in DOTís monthly Air Travel Consumer Report ( Also, the web site of DOTís Bureau of Transportation Statistics ( contains detailed on-time performance data for the large U.S. airlines that are required to report this information.

* When you buy a ticket, be sure all of the information is recorded accurately. Before you click "Submit" or make a final commitment to a reservations agent, review all of the essential information ? the spelling of your name, the flight numbers and travel dates, and the cities you are traveling between. Use the form of your name that is on the photo ID that you will show at the airport. (For an international flight, this will be your passport.) If there is more than one airport at either city, be sure you check which one you'll be using. It's also important to give the airline more than one telephone number and an email address so they can let you know if there is any change in its schedule.

* A "direct" (or "through") flight with a single flight number can have one or more intermediate stops. A connection (change of planes) nearly always has a separate flight number for each flight, but sometimes the two flights are listed on the same line in schedules.† Look carefully at the "Stops" column and the departure and arrival times to determine whether the flight suits your needs.

* If you are flying to a small city and your flight number has four digits, you may be booked on a commuter airline that has an agreement with the major carrier in whose name the flight is advertised and sold. Look for disclosures of these so-called "code-share" flights in the schedules, or ask the reservations agent.† DOT requires that you be provided this information.

* As soon as you receive your ticket or email confirmation, check to make sure all the information on it is correct, especially your name, the airports (if any of the cities have more than one) and the flight dates. Pursue any necessary corrections immediately.

* You will need to show a government-issued photo I.D. when you fly.† It is important that your name as it appears on the ticket is the same as it appears on the I.D. you will be using.† If your name has recently changed and the name on your ticket and your I.D. are different (or will be different by the time of your trip), bring documentation of the change (e.g., a marriage certificate or court order).

* Re-check the departure and arrival times of your flights a few days before your trip; schedules sometimes change. On international trips, some airlines may require that you reconfirm your onward or return reservations at least 72 hours before each flight. If you don't, your reservations may be canceled.

* Bring your ticket or printed confirmation to the airport. You may also be able to print your boarding pass from the carrierís web site within 24 hours of departure. This speeds your check-in and helps you avoid some of the tension you might otherwise feel if you had to wait in a slow-moving line at the airport.

Payment by credit card provides certain protections under federal credit laws. When a refund is due, the airline must forward a credit to your card company within seven business days after receiving a complete refund application; however, the credit may take a month or two to appear on your statement. If you paid by credit card for a refundable fare and you have trouble getting a refund that you are due (e.g., you have a refundable fare, or you have a nonrefundable fare and the airline canceled your flight and you did not travel as a result), report this in writing to your credit card company. If you write to them within 60 days from the time that they mailed your first monthly statement showing the charge for the airline ticket, the card company should credit your account even if the airline doesn't. This procedure is particularly useful if your airline ceases operations before your flight.

NOTE: In some cases tickets purchased overseas in foreign currency can only be refunded in that same currency and country, due to foreign government monetary restrictions. Keep this in mind if you are considering buying a ticket in a foreign country.


Airlines don't guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. There are many things that can-and often do-make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. Some of these problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines' control.

If your flight is delayed, try to find out how late it will be. But keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult for airlines to estimate the total duration of a delay during its early stages. In so- called "creeping delays," developments occur which were not anticipated when the carrier made its initial estimate of the length of the delay. Weather that had been forecast to improve can instead deteriorate, or a mechanical problem can turn out to be more complex than initially evaluated. If the problem is with local weather or air traffic control, all flights will probably be late and there's not much you or the airline can do to speed up your departure. If your flight is experiencing a lengthy delay, you might be better off trying to arrange another flight, as long as you don't have to pay a cancellation penalty or higher fare for changing your reservations. (It is sometimes easier to make such arrangements by phone than at a ticket counter.) If you find a flight on another airline, ask the first airline if it will endorse your ticket to the new carrier; this could save you a fare collection. Remember, however, that there is no rule requiring them to do this.

If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on their first flight to your destination on which space is available, at no additional charge. If this involves a significant delay, find out if another carrier has space and ask the first airline if they will endorse your ticket to the other carrier. Finding extra seats may be difficult, however, especially over holidays and other peak travel times.

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, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled. As discussed in the chapter on overbooking, compensation is required by law only when you are "bumped" from a flight that is oversold. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight. If the purpose of your trip is to close a potentially lucrative business deal, give a speech or lecture, attend a family function, or connect to a cruise, you might want to allow a little extra leeway and take an earlier flight. In other words, airline delays and cancellations aren't unusual, and defensive planning is a good idea when time is your most important consideration.

Some flights are delayed on the airport "tarmac" before taking off or after landing. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless: