Air Travel 101: What You Need to Know

Learn about air travel and your rights.

Do you have questions about how airlines calculate fares, airline ticket restrictions, or what happens when a flight is overbooked? Do you want know your rights if your flight is delayed or canceled? Read on to get familiar with the basics about air travel.

How Airlines Calculate Fares

Seat prices vary depending on availability and demand. Airlines determine the price of most airfares through complicated computer software programs that calculate charges based how many passengers are likely to book seats on any given flight, with the goal of maximizing revenue. In addition, airlines might offer discount fares to avoid flying with empty seats, and they charge more for flights and schedules that are likely to be used by business travelers. As a result, passengers on the same flight could be paying as many as a dozen different fares.

Airline Ticket Restrictions

Air tickets may have the following restrictions.

Nonrefundable. If you have a nonrefundable ticket, you can’t get your money back if you decide not to travel. But each airline has exceptions. If you can’t make a flight for which you have a nonrefundable ticket, you might be able to apply the ticket toward a future flight or exchange it for credit toward future travel. If the fare has dropped on a flight for which you have a nonrefundable ticket, you might be able to get reticketed. You might have to pay a fee to make the change.

Nontransferable. A nontransferable ticket can be used only by the passenger whose name appears on the ticket. If you need to change the passenger for a ticket that's nontransferable but refundable, you might be able to cash in the old ticket and buy a new one with the new passenger's name.

Penalties. Often, there are penalties for canceling or making other changes to tickets.

Overbooking

If a flight is overbooked, the airline is required to ask passengers to volunteer to take a later flight. Normally, the airline will offer some kind of incentive, like a free ticket or a credit for a future flight. If an insufficient number of passengers volunteer to be bumped from a flight, the airline must begin involuntary bumping. Generally, passengers with the most recent reservations or those who checked in the latest are the first to be bumped. Passengers who are bumped involuntarily are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation. (For details, check out FlyRights, published by the Department of Transportation.)

Tarmac Delays: Your Rights

A tarmac delay happens when a plane on the ground is either waiting to takeoff or has just landed and passengers aren’t able to get off the plane. The U.S. Department of Transportation has rules limiting the amount of time airlines can keep passengers on board delayed domestic and international flights. If the flight is departing or landing at a U.S. airport, the airline must give passengers the opportunity to safely get off of the airplane before three hours (domestic flights) or four hours (international flights). But exceptions for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons are allowed. Be aware that if you decide get off the plane during a tarmac delay, the airline isn’t required to let you back on.

The rules also spell out what airlines must do for passengers during long delays, like providing water, food, and access to toilet facilities. (Learn more in Nolo's article Tarmac Delays and Airline Passenger Rights.)

Flight Delays and Cancellations

Your rights regarding delayed and canceled flights depend on whether it's a domestic or international flight.

Domestic flights. For the most part, federal law doesn’t require airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled. So any compensation you'll get will depend on the airline's policy. An airline will usually rebook you on their first flight to your destination that has space available, for no additional charge. Airlines sometimes offer meals, hotels, alternate transportation, or even emergency toiletries in the event of an overnight delay.

International flights. If the delay was caused by anything other than the airline's overbooking, recovering damages for an international flight delay can be very difficult. International treaties called the Warsaw and Montreal Conventions both address the liability of airlines for delay. An airline can escape liability for damages caused by flight delay if it can show that it took all reasonable necessary measures to avoid the damage or that it was impossible to take such measures. If your international flight is delayed, you might be able to persuade the airline that it should cover direct costs caused by the delay, like meal, hotel, or telephone expenses. (Many airlines will readily offer these kinds of items in the event of an overnight delay.) To back up your argument, you can quote Article 19 of the Montreal Convention which states: "The carrier is liable for damages occasioned by delay in the carriage by air of passengers, baggage or cargo."

Children Traveling Alone

U.S. airlines typically allow children who are at least five years old to travel unaccompanied. Children ages five through 11 (sometimes as old as 14) who fly alone must usually travel pursuant to special unaccompanied minor procedures. Most airlines charge a fee for unaccompanied minors, and some airlines allow younger children to travel only on nonstop or direct flights.

Getting Information About Duties an Airline Owes Passengers

The contract between you and an airline dictates what duties the airline owes to you. The terms of this contract used to be printed on the back of paper tickets, which incorporated the airline's "Conditions of Carriage and Related Regulations" that the airline filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation. Now, most airlines post their Conditions of Carriage on their websites.

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