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- US airlines aren’t legally required to offer any compensation for delayed or canceled flights.
- Lawmakers are pushing for change, spurred in part by the recent chaos involving Southwest Airlines.
- American passengers have far fewer legal protections than those in Canada or Europe.
Southwest Airlines suffered huge disruption that began late last week when winter storms threw its operations into chaos, leaving tens of thousands of passengers stranded.
The chaos has sparked fresh calls for legally binding protection for passengers, as well as mandatory compensation for any travelers facing lengthy delays.
Southwest has promised to pay for alternative travel, food and hotel stays for all stranded passengers, but it’s not legally required to do so.
Although American passengers are entitled to a full refund if their flight gets canceled, airlines aren’t forced to offer any further compensation, provide meals and accommodation, or cover the costs of alternative travel — unlike in Canada and Europe.
Further, there are “no federal laws requiring airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed or cancelled,” per the Department of Transportation. Compensation is only legally required when passengers are “bumped” from an oversold flight.
Instead, airlines generally offer varying degrees of compensations and mitigations — all according to their own policies.
Last year, Democratic senators tried to clamp down on these inconsistencies with the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.
This legislation, which stalled in the committee stage, would guarantee clear protections — including forcing airlines to offer compensation of $1,350 in cash to passengers who reach their destination more than four hours late “for any reason within the control of the air carrier.”
This would include crew scheduling and maintenance issues — but not extreme weather conditions.
These kinds of regulations have been in force in Europe since 2004, when the European Union mandated compensation for lengthy delays or cancelations and forced airlines to pay for accommodation and food.
Payouts vary on the length of the delay, but can reach 600 euros ($641) for delays of more than four hours or cancellations of flights longer than 2,175 miles.
Meanwhile, Canada implemented its own Air Passenger Protection Regulations in 2019. Mandatory payouts for delayed passengers range from C$400 ($295) for delays of at least three hours to C$1,000 ($738) for delays of more than nine hours.
Jared Kamrowski, the founder of travel website ThriftyTraveler, said better protection for American passengers was long overdue.
“Requiring airlines to compensate customers when they delay or cancel flights would give travelers more control and power. But most importantly, it would help keep airlines accountable, limiting the mass disruptions we’ve seen over the last few years,” he wrote on his website.
Federal lawmakers have signaled that they will investigate the mass cancellations by Southwest. Some Democrats think the Department of Transportation should get much more aggressive in pursuing stronger passenger protections, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Katie Porter, a Democrat congresswoman from California, tweeted on Wednesday: “As a mom, I know how stressful the holidays can be… As a consumer protection attorney, I know there are steps we can take to hold the airlines accountable. Congress must take action.”
A representative for Southwest Airlines told Insider: “We apologize to all of our Customers who were affected by this disruption. Customers are encouraged to submit requests for refunds due to disruption, as well as requests for reasonable reimbursements for incidental expenses. Those will be processed on a case-by-case basis.”
They added: “Given the scale of the disruption, it will take some time to process all requests and our focus remains on stabilizing and resuming normal operations.”
The Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.