Your rights as an air traveler – Flight delays or Cancellations
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. Creeping delays may 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, it might be better to try 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 paying an additional fare. Remember 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 and what it will pay for. 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. They do not have to provide you with a hotel for a missed or cancelled flight but they may do so. As discussed in the blog 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 airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three (3) hours unless there is a safety issue on returning to the gate. If the airline anticipates a lengthy delay they may decide to wait at the gate as opposed to the tarmac because the time at the gate with the cabin door open does not count as wait time on the tarmac. U.S. airlines operating international flights to or from most U.S. airports must each establish and comply with their own limit on the length of tarmac delays on those flights. On both domestic and international flights, U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two (2) hours after the tarmac delay begins. While the aircraft remains on the tarmac lavatories must remain operable and medical attention must be available if needed.
The source of the above information is the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).