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TravelHere are airline passenger rights you need to know during a travel...

Here are airline passenger rights you need to know during a travel meltdown

We expect 2024 will break records again for travel. Some of the air travel problems passengers saw post-2020 have been resolved, but there are still many issues.

Last year, hundreds of thousands of summer travelers experienced flight delays and cancellations. Every time they come up, we get asked the same question: “What are airline passengers’ rights?”

Airline passengers in the U.S. have more rights than they used to. However, the rules are not quite as favorable as some travelers would hope.

Airlines often blame the weather when almost anything goes wrong — and, truthfully, the weather is often involved, at least as a triggering event. That was certainly the case last year as summer thunderstorms pounded the country and disrupted travel from Chicago to Newark.

Bad weather can have cascading, nationwide effects on airline operations. So, sometimes, you might run into a weather-related cancellation or delay even though it’s clear and sunny outside your window.

Fortunately, there is good news to report this year.

New air passenger rights rules issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation mean things are improving for passengers … even if they don’t go as far as many had hoped to see.

For example, even if your flight is substantially delayed or canceled, you still aren’t entitled to a full refund if you completed the trip in some form or fashion.

This is where a travel credit card offering trip protection and coverage for weather-related scenarios can help. The card can offset the cost of unexpected expenses you incur (like a hotel night, ground transportation and unexpected meals) to help close the gap.

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While the current list of airline passenger rights is growing, some rules are in place to help with travel disruptions. Here’s what you are currently entitled to when your air travel plans go sideways, as well as what could be coming down the road (or in the skies) in the future.

You’re entitled to a refund

Per the DOT policy, every airline passenger is entitled to a cash refund when their flight is canceled or significantly delayed or when the schedule is significantly changed. (This only applies if they choose not to fly because of the change.)

That goes for weather-related disruptions and those that are technically the airline’s responsibility, like maintenance issues.

Here are a few things to know about that refund:

  • You’re only entitled to a refund for the unused portion of your trip. So, say you fly from New York to Washington, D.C., your return trip gets canceled and you decide to take the train home. You would be owed a refund only for the return portion of your trip.
  • If you accept the airline’s rebooking offer, you’re not eligible for a refund.
  • Thanks to new rules just unveiled by the Biden administration, the DOT now defines what constitutes a significant delay or schedule change. As of April 2024, the DOT says a significant delay is three hours for domestic flights and six hours for international flights.
  • If they don’t end up traveling, eligible travelers must receive refunds for their trips automatically to their original form of payment within seven to 20 days, depending on how they paid.
  • The DOT also rolled out the website FlightRights.gov. It’s an update to the previous airline consumer service dashboard that notes which airlines already offer cash compensation, travel credits, vouchers or frequent flyer miles for delays and cancellations.
A screen shows the number of delayed and canceled flights at LaGuardia Airport (LGA). ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Compensation during airline delays

New rules from the Biden administration have increased passengers’ rights overall. Forced compensation for long delays is not among the firm new rules.

However, as shown on the DOT’s airline customer service dashboard, most major U.S. airlines provide meals, cash for meals or meal vouchers when delays cause a wait of three hours or longer. A notable exception is Frontier Airlines, which is not very generous.

Additionally, most major carriers guarantee hotel accommodations, plus the necessary ground transportation and from the hotel, when delays lead to an unexpected overnight stay. The only airline that doesn’t guarantee this, according to the dashboard? Frontier Airlines.

Remember that these are for so-called controllable delays — the ones that are technically the airline’s fault, like those due to aircraft maintenance or a staffing problem.

Notably, these guarantees do not apply to flights affected by bad weather or air traffic control problems.

Compensation for airline cancellations

Like with delays, airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers for canceled flights. However, most major U.S. carriers do provide some guarantees for the cancellations deemed to be their responsibility. (Again, this doesn’t apply to weather disruptions.)

All 10 carriers evaluated by the DOT guarantee meals, cash for meals or meal vouchers when cancellations lead to a wait of three hours or longer for a new flight.

Every airline — except Frontier — guarantees complimentary hotel accommodations for these covered cancellations leading to an unexpected overnight stay; the airlines also cover ground transportation to and from the hotel.

None of the airlines provide cash compensation for long delays or cancellations, which is what some of us at TPG would like to see. That would make the U.S. rules more like Europe’s EU261 compensation rules.

Keep in mind that even if the airline doesn’t technically owe you compensation, you can always ask. The worst the airline can say is “No.”

Related: Tips for using social media to contact airlines and hotels

The 24-hour refund rule

Let’s say you book an airline ticket and then find a better deal, or you realize your just-booked itinerary won’t work for you. Or, maybe you simply select something you didn’t intend.

There’s good news: Per the DOT policy, in the U.S., airlines must do one of two things: provide penalty-free refunds to passengers who cancel within 24 hours or allow customers to place a 24-hour hold on a ticket without purchasing it.

This applies to all types of tickets, including basic economy tickets and those that are technically “nonrefundable.”

Several airlines provide refunds for changes and cancellations beyond 24 hours, depending on the fare type, but they all have to give a 24-hour window of some sort.

Those rules came into effect in 2012. The DOT ordered airlines to allow passengers to cancel nonrefundable bookings or reservations within 24 hours of purchase as long as the booking is made at least seven days before the flight.

Tarmac delay rights

Airlines should not leave you on a plane on the tarmac for hourslong delays. Airlines have gotten much better about letting passengers off planes if they can’t get clearance to take off in a reasonable amount of time; the DOT cracked down on long tarmac delays by issuing rules in 2010.


Airlines are now required to provide food and drinking water after passengers have sat for two or more hours on a plane on the ground. Airlines must allow passengers to get off by the three-hour mark for domestic flights and the four-hour mark for international flights. If the airline doesn’t follow these rules, it is subject to large fines from the DOT.

Interestingly, some have argued that these rules have actually made delays worse. Either way, passengers have a right to avoid sitting indefinitely on the tarmac, unable to get off the plane.

New airline passenger rights under consideration

While most U.S. airlines guarantee things like meal vouchers and a complimentary hotel night when they are responsible for a major delay or cancellation, the Biden administration wants to go even further.

In May of 2023, the DOT announced a plan to propose rules requiring airlines to compensate passengers for these so-called controllable cancellations and delays. (Again, this wouldn’t apply to bad weather and other factors outside the airline’s control.)

If ultimately approved, the rule would seemingly bring consumer protections more in line with those in the European Union under that previously mentioned provision known as EU261.

“DOT has taken unprecedented action to protect and expand travelers rights when airlines cause cancellations and delays,” a DOT spokesperson told TPG last year. “Before Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg was sworn in, none of the largest U.S. airlines guaranteed meals, hotels, or transportation when they were the cause of a cancellation — now 10 guarantee meals and transportation and nine offer hotels. Additionally, this Administration has helped return over a billion dollars in refunds to travelers, has fined airlines at all-time highs, and is continuing to fight to expand passengers’ rights.”

Major airline trade groups have criticized the proposals, pointing to existing guarantees by airlines for meals, hotels and ground transportation; they warn that regulations could drive up costs for all passengers.

The DOT will also now require airlines to proactively inform passengers if they’re entitled to a refund and to issue refunds for paid services (like Wi-Fi or seat selections) that the customers don’t actually receive.

Will there be a new airline passenger bill of rights?

Some political leaders want to go even further than the current air passenger rules being adopted by the DOT.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, proposed a law that would enshrine rights to airline passengers — much as the Bill of Rights protects the rights of Americans.

“[Airlines] need to provide not only refunds but also additional compensation like the $1,350 if flights are delayed more than four hours, which is part of my bill of rights. $1,350 on top of refunds and alternative transportation expenses. Because the only message that the airlines seem to understand is dollars and cents,” Blumenthal shared with TPG.

“And if they have to pay a penalty beyond refunds and beyond paying for alternative transportation, it will get their attention,” he continued. “And also giving passengers the right to sue, the right to legal recourse is very important because the Department of Transportation isn’t always as vigorous as it should be.”

Under the proposed legislation, airlines would be required to refund tickets for flights delayed as little as one hour and provide alternative transportation. They would also be required to pay for food and hotels. Finally, the bill would forbid airlines from using weather as an excuse for delays and cancellations when it’s actually their fault.

A challenge for passengers is that even with that proposed legislation, there is an “out” for weather or other uncontrollable events. It’s unclear if the meltdown Southwest Airlines suffered during the 2022 Christmas season, for example, would be considered weather-related or not for the purposes of coverage by that bill of rights.

These proposed airline passenger bills of rights are a long way from passage. Airlines for America has called the legislation “short-sighted” and promised to campaign against it.

Related: 6 real-life strategies you can use when your flight is canceled or delayed

Bottom line


The current list of airline passenger rights is not where we’d necessarily like to see it, but we have seen a lot of positive passenger developments in the past few years.

Regarding delays and cancellations due to weather, however, the airlines still have a lot of wiggle room in compensating passengers. That said, just like during Southwest’s Christmas week meltdown, we are hopeful the airlines will do the right thing and make consumers whole for costs like meals, lodging and alternate flights in the end.

No matter what rules are in place, though, you will need to be your own best advocate. Record all expenses, and report your case directly to the airline for compensation. If you don’t get relief, you can always contact your representatives in Congress and even file a complaint with the DOT.

The worst thing an airline can tell you is “No.” Even then, if you use the right credit card to book your ticket, you’ll still have an avenue to recoup some of your additional expenses.

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