When the Skies Are Unfriendly

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The plane you intended to fly is stuck in a foot of snow in Omaha. Hours later it arrives, but the flight is overbooked and you get bumped. You muscle your way onto a flight a few hours later and are excited to finally get moving. But the plane sits on the tarmac for three hours, and then it turns out the brakes can't be fixed after all. At some point you accept that you've missed the awards ceremony and convince yourself you'd be satisfied just to make it to your connecting city tonight. Just then, a hailstorm hits.

The worst trip of your life. Someone, you figure, must pay.

But what are you really owed?

Depends. In these days of razor-thin profits and bankruptcies, some airlines have tightened up, making subtle but potentially high-impact changes to what they promise to do when bad things happen to good people. Your rights are outlined in each airline's "contract of carriage" -- usually a particularly terse wad of legalese that goes on for dozens of pages. You could go to each airline's Web site (or find links to them all at ; click on Rules of the Air), then spend a couple of days tearing your hair out as you wade through them -- or you could read our Q&A for a few key points translated into English.

Q. My flight was canceled because mechanics couldn't figure out why the engine light was on and I missed my granddaughter's christening. What do I get for my inconvenience?

A. Nothing, usually, but every airline's contract of carriage does promise to put you on its next available flight.

But their next flight with an empty seat wasn't for nine hours! Shouldn't they have put me on another airline?

That's one place where most airlines have tightened up, because it costs them dearly. But if a delay or cancellation is their fault, some airlines will put you on another carrier. The devil is in the details.

First off, many discount carriers, such as Southwest, AirTran and Spirit, promise only a seat on their next available flight. JetBlue is a notable exception: Its contract states that it will put you on another carrier at your request.

As to the legacy carriers:

· Northwest is the most generous. Its old-fashioned contract states: "If Northwest cancels a flight or changes a schedule by more than 60 minutes, or if Northwest causes a missed connection, the airline will put you on the next available flight on Northwest or on another carrier with which it has agreements, even if that means you must be upgraded to a higher class -- for instance, from coach to business."

· Delta's contract states: "At our sole discretion, we may arrange for your travel on another carrier or via ground transportation."

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