How much do airlines owe you for flight delays?

by January 28, 2015
An American Airlines ticket counter at Orlando International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson

An American Airlines ticket counter at Orlando International Airport. Photo by Benet J. Wilson

This week’s major snowstorm on the East Coast prompted airlines to cancel thousands of flights. It will take days for the system to get back to normal, putting travelers at risk of a flight delay, a cancellation or involuntary bumping.  While the U.S. Department of Transportation offers guidelines, it’s mostly left to the airlines to handle these issues.

An informed traveler can save hundreds of dollars and hours of travel time by knowing their rights — what the airlines can or can’t (or won’t) reimburse them for.

  • With flight delays, the amount travelers can get from an airline depends on the cause of the delay. If it’s a weather delay, nothing can be done, so you’re at the mercy of the airline. (Sometimes carriers will break out snacks and drinks on board, but don’t count on it.)  If it’s a delay caused by a mechanical or a late incoming flight, you are eligible for flight re-accommodation, along with food/hotel vouchers depending on the length of the delay.
  • If the flight is canceled, airlines will rebook on the next available flight with space available. That could be a few hours or a few days, depending on the day of the flight and the reason for the cancellation. Passengers can negotiate with airlines to be booked on another carrier, but there are no guarantees.

The only time travelers are guaranteed compensation is when they are involuntarily bumped from their flight.  In that case, travelers are entitled to cash — not travel vouchers — based on the length of the delay. Be sure to get the money, and don’t settle for vouchers which come with plenty of fine print.

Travelers who are involuntarily bumped can also keep their original ticket. If the airline can’t accommodate you, you can request an involuntary refund for your ticket. Finally, if travelers paid for services including seat selection or checked bags and they either didn’t receive them or they weren’t available on the substitute flight, airlines are required to refund those fees.


U.S. Department of Transportation’s “A Consumer Guide to Air Travel.”

Benét J. Wilson is co-editor of and blogs at She has been an aviation/travel journalist for more than 20 years. Follow her on Twitter @AvQueenBenet