When do airline passengers get their bill of rights?

Bill McGee
special for USA TODAY
Everyday occurrences in air travel often bewilder passengers; that is, what are your rights when an airline cancels your flight or misplaces your luggage?

It's a classic case of good news/bad news. Last month, the Cruise Lines International Association introduced the International Cruise Line Passenger Bill of Rights, which applies to all U.S. passengers who purchase their cruises in North America from any of CLIA's 26 member lines. After months of negative publicity generated by a series of mishaps and poor service, the cruise industry clearly felt the need to bolster confidence in its products.

Certainly it's hard to find fault with any document that pledges to strengthen the "safety, comfort and care of guests." But critics have asserted that it doesn't go far enough, and veteran travel advocate Ed Perkins notes the "glaring omission" is that this bill has no teeth—nothing is guaranteed under law. And as I have pointed out here, the cruise industry is the Wild West when it comes to government oversight.

Even so, you can say this for the U.S. cruise industry—it's certainly done much more than the U.S. airline industry when it comes to articulating passenger rights.

What's in the details?

CLIA's bill of rights is available online, so you can assess all 10 "amendments" for yourself. What struck me when I read this list is that airline passengers in the United States don't have a comparable text.

Of course, some of CLIA's provisions are not concerns for airline passengers. "The right to a ship crew that is properly trained in emergency and evacuation procedures" is ensured by Federal Aviation Administration regulations onboard U.S. airlines. And "the right to an emergency power source in the case of a main generator failure" isn't likely to affect your flight. But other cruise passenger rights underscore how the airlines can step up.

For example, the right to a full refund if your trip is canceled, or a partial refund if the itinerary is altered? The right to timely informational updates? The right to transportation and/or lodging? A toll-free line to obtain updates? The right to review all these rights on the company's website? Ironically, you're better protected on a foreign cruise ship than on an American air carrier.

As for the airlines…

In recent years there's been a lot of discussion about airline passenger rights, and I've been writing extensively about the topic here for some time. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Raymond LaHood has taken many positive steps, particularly in curbing lengthy tarmac delays. But in many ways, the industry has moved in the wrong direction.

Lengthy tarmac snafus have been reduced, but it's the everyday occurrences in air travel that often bewilder passengers; that is, what are your rights during the following situations?:

• your flight has been delayed

• your flight has been canceled

• you've been involuntarily bumped

• your baggage has been mishandled

What airlines owe to passengers when they're left stranded or itineraries are disrupted is still unclear: each carrier has a different policy, and often, the language and terms are opaque.

Occasionally, a high-profile airline debacle will lead to a public mea culpa or pledge, as jetBlue's operational meltdown several years ago produced that carrier's own Customer Bill of Rights. But this is the exception rather than the rule for domestic airlines.

Among the key problems for airline passengers:

• each domestic airline publishes its own Contract of Carriage, so there is no industry consistency

• even attorneys have trouble dissecting the vague language imbedded in these contracts

• finding these documents on airlines' websites has become a challenge onto itself, and hard copies have become a thing of the past

• not all airline employees—and outsourced airline representatives—are familiar with interpreting the contracts

• federal preemption seriously curtails passengers from redressing grievances

For many years now, consumer advocates have been calling for a concise, consistent, clear set of passenger rights for airline customers. When I served as the consumer advocate on the U.S. Department of Transportation's Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, I put forth the rather modest proposal that the United States examine the European Commission's "Your Passenger Rights at Hand" document.

Is the European template perfect? No, but it certainly provides an easy and straightforward blueprint for us to consider. (And for the record, the E.C. also offers passenger rights for rail, maritime and bus travel.)

Then there is one of the most fundamental rights for any consumer—the right to price transparency, which simply means the right to know the FULL cost of a product prior to purchasing it. As I detailed here back in April -- Do travel deals change based on your browsing history? -- the airline industry is experimenting with a new pricing initiative that has the potential to destroy comparison shopping as we know it. Securing pricing transparency is a critical right.

In the meantime

Will the airline industry emulate the cruise industry and script a passenger bill of rights? There's no evidence it will happen anytime soon. So for now keep the following in mind:

• After booking a flight, search the carrier's website for the Contract of Carriage so you're clear on what to expect if something goes wrong.

• If there is a problem, stay cool and obtain as much information as possible—names, titles, flight numbers, dates, times.

• Always use a charge card to book an airline flight, so you're protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act.

Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at USATODAY.com at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.