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Forget the Hype; What Matters Is the Contract

Travel suppliers woo you with all sorts of hype: great service, comfort, whatever. But what you actually get is sometimes a lot less than you thought you were promised. And if you have any sort of argument, what you can legally expect is not what’s in the hype; it’s what’s in the contract. This is true for any travel supplier. But DOT requires that airlines post their consumer commitments online and have written copies available for you to inspect at airline offices.

All lines comply, although contracts are a bit easier to find on some websites than on others. And, for the most part, they’re pretty much the same. Most follow the organization of the pre-deregulation tariff filings required by the Civil Aeronautics Board; some even retain the original paragraph numbering.

All airline contracts include a lot of “fine print” information, including:

  • Definitions of terms used in the contract.
  • Federally-mandated provisions on bumping compensation, liability for baggage loss/damage, timely response to consumer complaints, and the new requirements to limit extended tarmac delays. Also, most contracts refer to the government mandated but less-binding “customer service agreements” that cover much of the same ground as the contracts in less legalese.
  • Seemingly endless detail about what sorts of baggage, other than conventional luggage, each line will accept as checked baggage and the various fees involved. These listings include limits on, and fees for, oversized and overweight baggage as well as multi-page listings of details on sporting and recreational goods, musical instruments, and such. All also include some common exclusions on liability for high-value or fragile items as checked baggage.
  • Specific exclusion of a contractual commitment to maintain the ticketed schedule, instead using such weasel words as “best efforts” and “attempt.”

In a way, it’s surprising to find as many differences as exist. I recently helped SmarterTravel compile the Ultimate Guide to Airline Contracts of Carriage and it shows some areas where you might find important differences:

  • Most lines promise to refund your ticket if they change the schedule, but some set up a minimum time to qualify for a change while others don’t. Some agree to transfer you to another line; some say they “may” transfer you, and still others offer only a seat on their own next available flight.
  • In the event of a delay or cancellation due to causes within airline control, some lines contractually promise meals and hotel accommodations for delays exceeding four hours, some say they “may” provide such help but don’t commit to it, and some say nothing.
  • Minimum boarding deadlines vary; American and US Airways say you have to be in your seat at least 10 minutes prior to departure.
  • American, Delta, Sun Country, and Virgin America promise to honor a “flat-tire rule,” allowing travelers who arrive at the airport within two hours of a missed departure to standby for the next flight; others say nothing.
  • The minimum age for minors to travel unaccompanied by an adult varies from 12 years on some lines to 15 years on Virgin America; about half the lines won’t provide unaccompanied minor service on connecting flights.
  • More than half the lines no longer accept live animals for shipment as baggage in the cargo hold.

Check out the downloadable guide here.

One-sided as they may appear, airline contracts are much more accessible and consumer-friendly than those of other travel suppliers. One of the main consumer stumbling blocks for suppliers is a “forum” clause limiting the venue for possible legal action. Among the airlines, only Spirit includes such a clause, but they’re common among cruise lines and tour operators, as are loopholes to permit massive substitutions in accommodations, destinations, and other critical promises. And some non-airline contracts require you to submit problems to mandatory arbitration—notoriously anti-consumer—rather than allowing lawsuits.

All in all, typical formal contracts promise consumers as little as possible and demand as much as possible. So, regardless of how boring, you really need to read your contracts—after all, that’s what you’re really buying.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

(Photo: Magnifying Glass on Contract via Shutterstock)

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