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What Are My Rights in an Airline Strike?

Is there something in the water? Over the past few months, we’ve seen numerous strikes, near-strikes, and threatened strikes—from Lufthansa, American, British Airways, and even French air traffic control. Unsurprisingly, this abundant unrest has led many to wonder what would happen if a strike interfered with their vacation.

Airlines classify a strike as a force majeure event. Force majeure basically means an “act of god,” something completely out of the airlines’ control, such as a hurricane or earthquake. Now, you may be wondering how an airline strike can be considered out of the airline’s control, considering said airline will typically be involved in negotiations and, theoretically, is therefore liable, at least in part, for the strike. Well, that’s a perfectly good question, but probably better left for another day: It’s written plainly in most, if not all airline contracts of carriage, which you implicitly sign when you book your ticket, that strikes are a force majeure event.

So what does that mean to you? Force majeure grants airlines the flexibility to respond in whatever way they feel is appropriate. In the case of a strike, this means making scheduling changes, including cancellations. These changes can be minor or severe, and they can come with little to no warning.

Let’s look at American’s contract of carriage, since the airline may have to invoke a little force majeure of its own in the near future. The relevant section is pretty brief and blunt, so I’ll paste it in full:

[American] may, in the event of a force majeure event, without notice, cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight or the right of carriage or reservation of traffic accommodations without liability except to issue an involuntary refund. The involuntary refund will be made in the original form of payment in accordance with involuntary refund rules for any unused portion of the ticket. AA will also reserve the right to determine if any departure or landing should be made without any liability except the afore mentioned involuntary refund.

American goes on to define force majeure events:

  • Any condition beyond AA’s control including, but without limitation, meteorological conditions, acts of God, riots, civil commotion, embargoes, wars, hostilities, disturbances or unsettled international conditions – actual threatened or reported. Also, because of any delay, demand, circumstances or requirement due, directly or indirectly to such conditions, or
  • Any strike, work stoppage, slowdown, lockout or any other labor related dispute involving or affecting AA’s service, or
  • Any government regulation, demand or requirement, or
  • Any shortage of labor, fuel or facilities of AA or others, or
  • Any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by AA.

I love how American ends the list with, “Any fact not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by AA,” as if the galaxy-wide range of incidents—from labor disputes to meteor crashes—wasn’t broad enough. That said, you will notice the only snafus not included are mechanical issues, technical glitches, and so forth, all of which are considered part of American’s normal operational responsibilities.

In sum, you are entitled to an involuntary refund if American cancels your flight.

However, airlines will typically treat strikes they way they treat bad weather—by waiving change fees and allowing passengers to easily rebook, a pretty decent move that makes everyone’s life a little easier. Plus, it’s in an airline’s best interests to make such a noble decision, because it keeps the customers happy and makes the carrier look well-meaning, perhaps even like a victim rather than a cold-blooded corporate monster. Regardless, it’s an opportunity for consumers to reschedule in advance of a possible cancellation, certainly the lesser of two evils.

Readers, have you ever been caught up in an airline strike? How did you handle it?

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