by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | June 01, 2005

As the airline industry’s woes intensify, passengers need to know what their rights are should a carrier fail to perform. Beware: The rules get more complicated every day.

Domestic Travel
“Involuntary denied boarding” a polite way of saying you’ve been bumped now has new regulations.
    This goes back to a lawsuit that was filed many years ago by Ralph Nader, forcing airlines to disclose their overbooking policies and to detail what they will do to help stranded passengers.
    In the United States, the carrier is obligated to provide alternatives to those travelers who have been bumped, and to seek volunteers to wait for the next available seat by paying as much as $400. (I’ve seen the volunteer amount go to four figures for an international flight originating in the United States.)
    Note though, in an involuntary bumping situation, if the airline is able to reroute you on another flight that will get you to your destination within at least an hour of your originally scheduled arrival, the carrier is under no obligation to compensate you for the inconvenience. If you will land more than two hours after your original arrival time domestically or four hours internationally, you’re eligible for a maximum of $400.
    With flight delays and cancellations, domestic airlines have a degree of freedom with how they can handle the rabble. If you are a member of an elite group a platinum, gold or silver flyer your chances of being favored are enhanced. If you are flying first class, the same would be true, but never count on it.
    The carriers’ options include priority booking on the next flight, provision of hotel accommodations and meals, and other benefits such as ground transportation to a hotel. But, again, they are not obligated.
    You also can ask the airline to endorse your ticket to another airline, which might get you to your destination on time or sooner than otherwise possible. Again, this is discretionary and involves restrictions: You need to have a confirmed reservation, check in on time and be at the gate on time. Generally, the last one at the gate is the first to be bumped.

Over the years, Europe has been extremely considerate of travelers, using the so-called Frankfurt rules that outlined how much would be paid to a traveler whose ticket was not honored for whatever reason.
    Under new directives adopted in February, an airline passenger has additional rights concerning the dispersal of information about flights and reservations, delays and cancellations, overbooking and compensation in the case of an accident or difficulties with a packaged holiday.
    If bumped or delayed under the regulations of the European Union, you can receive up to 600 euros, depending on the flight distance and other factors, such as the reason for delay. As with domestic travel, you must arrive and check in on time to qualify for compensation.
    Keep an eye on on the news, though: Many of these new EU regulations are being challenged in court by the International Air Transport Association. Be aware, also, that if you are traveling on a U.S.-based airline, EU rules will not apply.

Meeting Awareness
Planners can help attendees learn their rights by including web-based information in the registration material. Send travelers to websites such as the Gateway to the European Union ( or the guide to U.S. rules ( These websites provide additional information on lost luggage, check-in times, visa requirements and more.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him