Plane Ticket Refunds and the Law

You've arrived at the airport early, checked in, and are waiting in the terminal when you discover that your flight was overbooked and the airline is going to bump you to a later flight. We've all been there. Putting up with flight changes, delays, or cancellations by airlines can be frustrating, especially when your carrier refuses to adequately compensate you for the hassle. However, if for some reason you need to change or cancel a flight, airlines often seem much less accommodating.

You may not know this, but there are several protections in place for you when it comes to refunding, changing, or cancelling your ticket, even if it is a non-refundable ticket. These are based on federal laws and regulations as well as the internal policies of airline carriers. To show you the seriousness of these protections, in 2013 the Department of Transportation issued an order requiring United Airlines to pay a fine of $350,000 for, among other things, failing to timely process consumer refund requests. The laws are on your side, and there are significant pressures for airlines to grant your request for a plane ticket refund.

What Are Your Rights?

Some of the more important rules, regulations, and policies protecting your right to plane ticket refunds are listed below.

Notice Requirements

An airline is required to give you conspicuous written notice of any terms that:

  • Restrict refunds of ticket prices
  • Impose monetary penalties on passengers
  • Raise ticket prices

These terms must be displayed either on your airline ticket or with your ticket so check your ticket and any paperwork you were given with your ticket to see if you were given adequate notice of any restriction or fee that an airline is trying to impose on you.

Twenty-Four Hour Reservation Rule

Under the 24-Hour Reservation Rule, you can either:

  • Have your reservation held at the quoted fare for 24 hours without payment, or
  • Cancel your reservation within 24 hours and receive a full refund.

This rule only applies if your reservation is made at least seven days before the departure date but would apply to all tickets, even those that are non-refundable. An airline is also required to clearly and fully disclose this rule to you on its website and verbally through reservation agents or customer service agents upon request. Keep in mind that if an airline offers you other refund options within the 24 hour reservation period, you still have a right to demand a full refund under this rule.

Involuntary Refunds

Many airlines have policies in their contracts of carriage covering involuntary refunds (often referred to as Rule 260). Under these provisions, you are able to change or cancel your flight (with a full refund) if an airline refuses to carry you for any reason or if your flight is severely delayed. However, this only applies if you've already checked in for your flight.

These provisions are based on the contract with your carrier, but federal rules also apply when you are involuntarily bumped from a flight. If that’s the case, the airline must provide you with a written statement describing your rights and how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. You can also be entitled to “denied boarding compensation” which would depend on the price of your ticket and the length of any delays.

Also, if you are involuntarily bumped from your flight, federal rules require that you be compensated if you would arrive at your destination more than one hour from your original scheduled arrival time, as follows:

  • Up to $650 if you would get to your destination between 1-2 hours of your scheduled arrival time
  • Up to $1,300 if you would get to your destination over 2 hours from your scheduled arrival time or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you

Schedule Change Loophole

Many airlines also have policies that will allow you to obtain a refund if there's a significant schedule change before your departure. You should review your carrier's website to determine whether this applies to you.

What Can You Do if an Airline Refuses to Refund Your Ticket?

If an airline refuses to provide you with a refund that you are entitled to, you can file a consumer complaint with the Department of Transportation. Complaints submitted to the DOT are made available to the news media and the public and are reviewed by DOT to determine whether carriers are in compliance with all federal consumer protections for airline passengers.

In addition, if you have a dispute with an airline regarding ticket refunds or another matter and you're not being adequately compensated, you can contact an attorney who specializes in aviation law. An attorney can properly advise you of your rights, the legal remedies available to you, as well as any statute of limitations deadlines.

For more information on airline rules in general, see FindLaw’s section on Airline Rules.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified consumer attorney to assist with protecting your rights with regard to travel rules and contracts.

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