I-Team: Ahead of busy travel season, a look at what your rights are as an airline passenger

Ahead of a busy travel season, here's a look at what your rights are as an airline passenger.
Updated: Nov. 11, 2021 at 11:07 AM EST
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WINDSOR LOCKS, CT (WFSB) -- In a matter of days, families will be reuniting with loved ones for Thanksgiving.

For some, it’ll be the first time on a plane since the pandemic started, and they’ll be entering a more hectic world of travel.

Recent weeks have seen widespread cancellations and delays.

So, before folks hit the friendly skies, the Channel 3 I-Team is digging deeper to find out what your rights are as a passenger.

“I found out the night before I was supposed to leave that my 6 o’clock flight got cancelled,” said Nancy Heron, who was a stranded passenger.

A trip to a Jimmy Buffett convention in Key West last month was anything but paradise for Nancy Heron.

“They tried to book me two days later,” she explained.

She said if American Airlines had rescheduled her two days later, she’d have missed some of the convention.

“It’s frustrating. I thought I was safe because I had the first flight out,” she said.

Nancy was one of the thousands of flyers who fell victim to unexpected, last minute cancellations or delays.

“I don’t know if they didn’t have a flight crew, they didn’t have a pilot,” she wondered.

It’s a recent unwelcome airline trend, and travel expert Peter Greenberg explains why it seems to be happening more often.

“The airlines seeing how many people were flying, doubled and tripled down on their schedule and added all these routes to cities they’re never flown to before, so everyone was stretched more thin,” Greenberg said.

On top of that, add in vaccine mandates.

Since that started at some airlines, passengers feel things have gotten worse.

“From my understanding, they don’t have the flight crews,” Heron said.

The mandate also impacts TSA workers, who are government employees.

“You’re understaffed, you overscheduled and then you have weather. That is a prescription for a meltdown,” Greenberg said.

While Nancy was flying American, that airline hasn’t been the only one to have a recent meltdown that stranded passengers.

“What happened with Spirit, what happened at Southwest and American is a pretty strong indication that you can’t operate that way,” Greenberg said.

When it comes to passenger rights, Greenberg said in the majority of cases, customers are at the mercy of the airline. There are no laws protecting them.

“Nothing is spelled out in rules. It’s really up to the airline to figure out what they want to give you,” Greenberg said.

“They don’t actually give you an explanation. They say your flights delayed and this is what we’re going to do,” Heron explained.

So, with that in mind, the I-Team crafted a blueprint so you can have the most hassle-free travel experience.

It starts early on in the booking process.

Greenberg says there’s one type of ticket you should never buy.

“Basic economy. A basic economy ticket is use it or lose it. If you look at the next fare category up from basic economy, you’ll find it’ll only cost you $30 more but that’s your insurance policy, so if you have to cancel, you’re not going to lose your money,” Greenberg said.

What about those offers for insurance that you see right before you purchase your tickets?

Greenberg says don’t bother because there’s not a lot of clarity when it comes to coverage.

“If you want to buy flight insurance, meaning trip cancellation and interruption insurance, do so through a third party, a travel agent, who can walk you through the hieroglyphics of what that policy language is so you know if it’s even worth it,” he said.

Now that you have your ticket, how early do you have to get to the airport these days?

“At the very least, three hours ahead,” he said.

That’s because long lines at security have also caused travelers to miss flights.

You can try to get compensation through a complaint with TSA, but Greenberg says don’t hold your breath.

“You can do it, but you have to prove damages and you’re making a claim against the government. It could take years,” he said.

Greenberg added that you’re really not safe until you make your destination. Greenberg says book non-stop flights, if possible.

Tight layover times have been a source for missed connecting flights.

Coming back to New England, Heron said she had less than an hour to connect in Charlotte and she missed it.

“This was the worst experience in all the time I’ve traveled,” she said.

Greenberg’s advice is to space out travel and start your day as early as possible.

“Give yourself at least a 90 minute connect time and start from the beginning. Try to get the very first flight of the day out and ask if that aircraft that was assigned to your flight arrived the night before at your departure airport. That means the crew did too and you have a reasonably good chance of getting out,” he said.

Here’s another travel tip from Greenberg -- Years ago, when you missed a flight, airlines would work together to get you on another flight, even if that meant it was on a different carrier. Nowadays those interline agreements are hard to come by. In fact, some, like Southwest, don’t have them at all and that can cause bigger backups.