An angry traveler confronts a harried gate agent at an airport in Anyplace, USA. “I’ve been waiting for 2 hours for this flight to take off and you people keep saying it’s delayed, it’s delayed, it’s delayed. When is this flight going to leave?”
“We are announcing updates as we get them; as of right now we are looking at a tentative departure in about an hour,” the gate agent wearily replies. “We’re told that the delays are due to equipment issues.”
“That plane looks fine to me,” growls another disgruntled passenger.
“I’m sick of these excuses,” the first passenger snaps. “You have to get me to my destination within two hours of the time I was originally going to arrive so put me on another flight and get me out of here! That other airline has one leaving in thirty minutes. You have to put me on that flight, it’s a Rule 240.”
Rule 240, the magic words that will resolve any airline delay situation and get travelers on their ways with smiling faces. Rule 240, the insider secret seasoned travelers know and travel agents give to their favorite clients. Rule 240 makes any airline employee cringe and whisper ‘how do you know about Rule 240?”
So does the gate agent immediately put the angry traveler on another airline, murmuring apologies and offering drink coupons as a gesture of goodwill? Rather, the gate agent says to the angry traveler, “I’ll put you on the next available flight we have if and when this flight is cancelled. In that event it would be at 7:00 am tomorrow. I won’t book you on another airline.” So much for Rule 240.
What exactly is Rule 240? The US Department of Transportation, Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Consumer Guide to Air Travel – an excellent reference—defines Rule 240 as “a term describing what individual airlines will do for late or stranded passengers, in the event of delays caused by airlines. Rule 240 mandated that an airline facing a delayed or canceled flight had to transfer you to another carrier if 1) the second carrier could get you to your destination more quickly than the original line and 2) it had available seats.”
Note the past tense because the original rule referred to a federal requirement prior to airline deregulation back in 1978. In other words, it’s obsolete. The thing is that most travelers and some travel agents aren’t aware of this and no amount of righteous indignation and fist-pounding will make any difference to the airline gate agent who does know the current regulations.
The DOT Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement Consumer Guide to Air Travel has this to say and it is very important:
“A common misconception is that all airlines are required to have a Rule 240, but they do not... the major airlines have filed "conditions of carriage" with the U.S. Department of Transportation guaranteeing their similar provisions. These provisions vary from airline to airline, and generally apply only to delays that are absolutely the airline's fault, such as mechanical delays, and not to "force majeure" events such as weather, strikes, or "acts of God.”
The bottom line is that a passenger has to know the airlines’ versions of Rule 240 before boarding a plane and that is where the “conditions of carriage” come into play. An airline ticket represents a contract between the airline and the passenger, essentially a Contract of Carriage. Every airline has specific rules that make up a contract of carriage and they may vary among different carriers. The passenger accepts the terms of this contract upon purchase of the airline ticket and as such should know what he or she is agreeing to: the airline’s “conditions of carriage” or its version of Rule 240.
Every major airline has its conditions or contact of carriage on its website. It’s probably safe to say that 99% of travelers have never read it or didn’t even know it existed. The Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement website (www.airconsumer.dot.gov/publications/flyrights) states in extensive legalese how an airline must provide its contract of carriage upon request and all the rules that it must incorporate; such as compensation for involuntary bumping, what an airline will do for delayed passengers at the airport (there is no federal regulation stating they have to do anything) and so on. Suffice it to say, go the website, type ‘conditions of carriage’ in the search box, read it, print it and carry it with you.
Here are some examples:
“When you buy a ticket for travel on Delta, you enter into a contract of carriage with us. The terms of your contract are set forth in:
Any tariffs that apply
Our Conditions of Carriage or General Rules Tariff”
The Delta Airlines Domestic General Rules Tariff alone is 57 pages long; pay particular attention to the page 48 heading: Rule 240. It’s all laid out for you.
Frontier Airlines Contract of Carriage: “Transportation of passengers is subject to the terms and conditions contained in this Contract of Carriage, in addition to any terms and conditions specified on any Internet site, printed on or in a ticket jacket, e-ticket receipt,
fare rule, or in any published schedule. By purchasing a ticket and accepting transportation, the passenger agrees to be bound by such terms and conditions.” The Rule 240 is on page 33.
American Airlines’ Conditions of Carriage begins with this notice: “Your ticket and the following Conditions of Carriage constitute the contract between you, the passenger, and American Airlines, Inc…” and although the Conditions of Carriage don’t identify Rule 240 by name, it’s in there under ‘Delays, Cancellations and Diversions.” But by far the most important instruction you will see is “Please read your contract carefully.”
This applies to every airline’s Contract/Conditions of Carriage: Read It Carefully. Ask questions if any part is unclear and understand that you have agreed to enter a contract with an airline.
So who knew? Now you do and now you know what to expect from the airline the next time your flight is delayed or cancelled. Even better, pull out your copy of the Conditions of Carriage and study it before discussing options with your airline gate agent; you’ll get points for being a savvy traveler.