Why airlines can’t stop rewriting the rules for aviators
American Airlines changed the terms of its tickets last month to say that its “only obligation” for flight cancellations or missed connections is to refund the remainder of your ticket.
American therefore again amended its contract of carriage on September 24 to add that a refund remains its only obligation “subject to our policy to modify the reservation of your delayed / canceled flight”. In other words, the airline should always get you to your destination, even if that means they may just hand you your money back.
Airlines are constantly changing the rules on their tickets, with customers or regulators often barely noticing. Frontier Airlines says it has revised its contract of carriage 77 times since 2002. JetBlue says it reviews its rules several times a year to reflect what it calls its “evolving business and operational needs.”
In September, American, Delta,
JetBlue and Alaska have all revised their contracts of carriage, which are bulky. JetBlue’s contract of carriage is 59 pages long; that of Alaska has 58 pages; United and Southwest both take 47 pages to print. Each of the eight largest US airlines has all revised its conditions since April. (You can often find links to these contracts at the bottom of airline homepages.)
Some are simple changes, like inflation adjustments to payment limits for ejected passengers or lost baggage. Others are more important and erode the rights of clients. Many travelers still believe that airlines will book you on a competitor if they have to cancel a flight. This was removed from the rules of most airlines years ago.
Legally, it’s a take it or leave it membership contract. Many states have laws or court precedents that require buyer fairness in membership contracts. But airlines are not subject to state consumer law.
A federal law states that the Department of Transport is supposed to monitor “unfair or deceptive” airline practices. Consumer groups lobbied DOT for more action on transportation contracts.
“They don’t really oversee a lot on these contracts,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org. “It’s okay. You get this constant review to try to make them more and more in favor of the airlines.”
It highlights force majeure provisions that generally exonerate airlines from the responsibility of canceling flights after terrorist attacks or major storms. The contracts do not relieve passengers of responsibility, so in some cases passengers do not receive a refund, but a voucher or credit and the airline keeps the money. During the pandemic, airlines clung to tens of billions of dollars in customers who were unable to travel due to border closures or health concerns, even when flights were canceled.
“It should be impartial. If the contract in these situations is void and you didn’t get the service you paid for, you should get your money back, ”said Hudson.
DOT rules say that the rules in place when you buy a ticket must apply to that ticket. Airlines cannot retroactively change the game on you.
A DOT spokesperson said in a written statement that the agency “is committed to ensuring that airline passengers are treated fairly” and that it reviews airline contracts of carriage “where appropriate.” The DOT said it recently investigated Air Canada and United’s pandemic reimbursement policies and “ordered these airlines to revise their contracts of carriage to make it clear that they would reimburse passengers if the airline cancels or sets an important schedule for a flight. “
Airlines say many of their recent reviews have been attempts to add transparency to their policies so that customers don’t have false expectations.
Some are small problems. In August, Southwest tightened the conditions for voluntary sleep, when a person wants to change flights at the airport on the day of travel. The new rule clarifies that any difference in fare, taxes and charges can be collected per flight segment instead of just per trip.
In April, Frontier updated its policy to add flights that return to the gate as one of the circumstances in which passengers with a health condition or disorderly behavior will be required to reimburse the airline for the costs. incurred, including accommodation costs for other passengers. Previously, Frontier only listed unplanned landings. Arguments over masks and other disruptive or drunken behavior have led some flights to return to the boarding gate before take-off to collect passengers.
In American’s case, the airline was being sued by customers stranded after an American cancellation and having purchased tickets on other airlines. Customers wanted American to reimburse them for the flights because American’s contract of carriage said it would change customers’ reservations on the next available flight.
The rules did not specify that American would change customers’ reservations only on flights operated by American or its partners, although this has been the airline’s practice for years. The American legal department therefore tightened the contract of carriage. And he inserted the language “single obligation”, first spotted By travel blogger JT Genter.
US spokeswoman Andrea Koos said the company is trying to “more accurately reflect” its practices. “We always strive to provide our customers with the best possible service and support them when trips are not going as well as expected,” she says.
When asked if “single obligation” didn’t mean the only obligation – a refund and not an obligation to transport passengers to their destination – American took a few days to respond and then said he was changing his policy again. contract of carriage.
The overhaul, carried out on September 24, was intended “to clear up any confusion regarding our obligation to change passenger reservations or provide a refund in the event of delay, cancellation or deviation,” Ms. Koos said.
Write to Scott McCartney at [email protected]
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