Airline Passenger Rights in the USA

Air travel has been a major mode of transportation for travelers and their belongings. Moreover, with lucrative deals and offers emerging every now and then, this mode is increasingly becoming the choice of many across the world. 

However, it’s all about planning a smooth air travel according to the related processes involved as well as the rules set by airlines and aviation organizations. While you stay fully aware of all the requirements related to your check-in or availing a particular service on the plane, it is also significant for you to be aware of your own rights as an airline passenger. 

But if the airline fails to fulfill its commitment and you are denied any right, you can immediately file a complaint. Airline passengers in the United States enjoy certain rights and protections under stringent guidelines and regulations established by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) for airlines. 

There are also other established agencies under the DOT taking care of the rights of passengers. This ensures that if they encounter any issues while on their way to the defined destination, they can file the relevant complaints for smooth resolutions. 

Explore further in detail and stay conversant with your rights. 

What are the Airline Passenger Rights in the US?

Read about the rights reserved for airline passengers by the DOT. 

Tarmac Delays

Tarmac Delay is the time duration for which passengers need to wait for the plane to take off while they are sitting inside. Besides, another scenario of such a delay is when passengers are restricted from getting off the plane despite the fact that it has landed at its destination airport. 

As per the Tarmac Delay Rule (14 CFR 259.4), airlines need to provide food, water, and access to lavatories to passengers if the delay exceeds the limit of three hours.

Flight Delays and Cancellations

As per the recent news, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) declared new laws for airlines. Now they need to provide passengers with automatic refunds in case their flights are cancelled or delayed for long hours. 

So, you will be entitled for the refund if:

  • There is a change in departure or arrival time that exceeds three hours for domestic flights or six hours in case of international flights.
  • You are asked to travel in a lower class despite the fact that you bought a higher class seat. 
  • There is a change in your departure or arrival airport.
  • There is an increase in the number of connections as part of your air journey.
  • There are changes to connecting airports or planes that are not suitable for passengers with disabilities.

Airlines are required to inform passengers about flight cancellations at least 14 days before the scheduled departure date. But they may need to cancel flights due to unforeseen events such as inclement weather, mechanical issues, and air traffic delays, which are not in their control. 

There were usually no laws as such for domestic flights in the US. It was up to the specific airline if they wanted to compensate the travelers or not.

Thus, despite the new laws specified above, as per the DOT, you are still advised to check with your airline in advance for the same. 

In case your flight gets cancelled, what most of the airlines do is that they do a rebooking for you on their first flight (which has space) to your chosen destination. They do not charge anything for the same. However, if there is a huge delay, you may check if there is space in any other airline. If yes, you can confirm with your first airline whether they can endorse your ticket to the other airline you have chosen to fly with.

If there is a significant delay, you can also ask the representatives or staff of your airline to pay for your meals or a phone call. It may be noted that some airlines, including the low-cost ones, do not make available any facilities in such cases.

Overbooking or Involuntary Bumping 

Sometimes, airlines take bookings more than available seats on a specific flight. Thus, in such a case, if your airline does not allow you to fly despite a booked ticket, you will be entitled to denied boarding compensation. This could come as a check or cash. 

Now the amount varies as per the price of your ticket and also the duration of the delay. As per the DOT, the requirements are not that much. Nevertheless, it completely depends from one airline to another on how much they want to provide as compensation. 

But you must be able to show that your reservation was confirmed with the airline. Thereafter, you can show a written confirmation that was issued by the airline or an authorized agent regarding the denial of your boarding to the flight.

IMPORTANT NOTE: You shall not be entitled for any compensation if the airline is able to arrange another transportation for you, and it arrives at your destination within one hour of the scheduled arrival time of your original time.

Damaged Bags 

If you find your luggage in a damaged or torn state, the airline generally compensates for repairs. They reach a settlement point to give you its depreciated value if it cannot be fixed. The same applies to items that are damaged inside. Please note that if the damage does not happen due to the airline’s forceful handling but because of the fragile nature of the broken item or improper packing at your end, you may not be compensated for the same by the airline.

Also, if there is no indication that the suitcase has got external damage, airlines may refuse to reimburse you for any damaged things within the bag. 

The airline staff may inform you during check-in if they believe your package or suitcase won’t make it through the journey undamaged. They might ask you to sign a declaration acknowledging that you will check an item at your own risk before taking it if it seems doubtful. 

However, even if you sign the form, the airline may still be held accountable for any damages if the external damage to the bag or box indicates that the airline was negligent or irresponsible.

Lost Bags 

If your bag is lost and there is no possibility of getting it back after the airline has made all efforts, you can submit a claim by filling out a detailed form. 

The airline generally refers such claims to a central office. They also negotiate with you. If it is like you were on a flight with a layover and the initial airline misplaced the bag, still the final carrier handling a connection is generally in charge of handling this type of claim. 

But airlines first determine the approximate value of your misplaced belongings using the data on your form. They may take into account the depreciated value of your belongings rather than their original cost or replacement value. 

Airlines have the right to fully reject the claim they believe to be false or exaggerated. Prices receipts and other supporting evidence related to your lost belongings may also necessarily need to be submitted, particularly when a huge amount of money is involved. 

You can negotiate with the airline over the value of your belongings if you don’t maintain complete records. Airlines typically take four weeks to three months to reimburse passengers in such situations. You may also be given the choice of receiving complimentary tickets on subsequent trips in an amount greater than the cash payment when they offer a settlement. So, you can enquire more about these scenarios if there are some limitations or conditions on these tickets etc. Thereafter, you can make a decision accordingly. 

Delayed Bags

If you do not find your suitcase after arriving at your destination airport, the airlines use their highly advanced systems to find and hand them over to you. They also pay for any reasonable costs you incur in the process of searching for your lost bags or belongings. However, the amount it will pay may be negotiable.

So, if you do not find the suitcase, inform the airline staff that it has not come to the conveyor belt. Even if they say the suitcase will be on the next flight, request them to write a report and send you a copy. You must also get a phone number from them for follow-ups. 

If the luggage is found, don’t assume that the airline may charge you if it delivers the bag. You must check the same with your airline. The airline may ask their staff members working at airports to provide you with funds for last-minute purchases.

In case the claim does not get resolved with the airline’s staff at the airport, you must keep a record of the names of the staff members whom you talked to. Keep all travel documents and receipts showing the amount you spent in relation to the mishandling. Then you must proceed with contacting the airline’s baggage claims office or consumer office after returning home.

Arrangements for Passengers with Disabilities 

The DOT aims to enable passengers with disabilities an equally comfortable flight journey. Thus, the Department has defined certain regulations for airlines so as to prevent any hurdles for such passengers on-board. 

Carriers must make sure that passengers with disabilities are taken care of by a safety assistant if:

  • They travel on a stretcher or in an incubator 
  • They are not able to understand or provide a suitable response to safety instructions shared by the airline’s team
  • They are unable to physically assist in their own evacuation from the aircraft;
  • They have severe hearing and vision impairments due to which they cannot receive and act on necessary instructions shared by the airline’s team at the time of evacuating the aircraft in an emergency.

The DOT also enforces and channelizes the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986. This Act prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. Airlines are instructed to make their facilities and services accessible. 

Such regulations are applicable for all flights to, from, or within the United States, as well as flights to or from the US by foreign airlines. 

As per the ACAA rule, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the following facilities must be available for passengers with disabilities at airport terminals.

  • Easy location of parking near the terminal
  • Indications for accessible parking 
  • Easy location of medical facilities and travelers aid stations
  • Easy location of restrooms
  • Easy location of drinking areas
  • Easy location of ticketing systems at primary fare collection areas
  • Amplified telephones and text telephones which can be readily used by travelers with hearing and speech impairments 
  • Accessible baggage check-in and retrieval areas;
  • Mobile lounges
  • Level entry boarding ramps, lifts or other means of assisting an individual with a disability on and off an aircraft at most other U.S. airports
  • Information systems using visual words, letters or symbols with lighting and color coding, and systems for providing information orally
  • Signs indicating the location of specific facilities and services
  • Relief areas for service animals
  • Equivalent service to a passenger wishing to use an inaccessible automated ticket kiosk

When it comes to moving through the airport then according to the ADA-related standards, there must be shuttle vehicles, owned or operated by airports, transporting people between parking lots and terminal buildings. People movers and moving walkways must also be provided within and between terminals and gates.

One accessible route from an airport entrance to ticket counters, baggage handling sections, and boarding locations must be provided by all airlines. These routes must be created with an aim to reduce extra distance that wheelchair users can travel, which is more in case of usual passengers, to reach these facilities.

Airlines do not have the right to restrict the movements of passengers with disabilities in terminals. Besides, they cannot let them stay in a holding area or other location while they wait for transportation and other relevant assistance.

Hence, similarly, the airlines are required to follow other such procedures such as accommodating passengers with medical equipment, such as wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, as long as they provide advance notice. They must also allow service animals in the cabin or as checked baggage, when passengers post advance notice for the same. 

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Regulations

As per the FAA, airlines are instructed to comply with the following: 


Airlines are responsible for ensuring the airworthiness of their aircraft. They must hold regular maintenance and inspections.

Pilot Training

Airlines must ensure that pilots receive sufficient training through regular sessions. They must also be certified to fly commercial aircraft.


Airlines must inform passengers about turbulence on flights, which may include turbulence warnings and alerts.

Emergency Procedures

Airlines are required to define certain procedures to tackle emergency situations such as medical issues and hijackings.

Apart from this, as per the Consumer Protection Regulations, the airlines are required to practise Truth-in-Advertising. They must advertise truthfully and accurately, including the disclosure of all fees and charges. There must not be any deceitful ads or hidden costs luring customers. 

What Should be Done if an Issue or Claim Shared with Airline Personnel at the Airport is not Resolved?

It is true that many times despite your extensive efforts for getting certain issues related to baggage or any other matter addressed suitably, no substantial steps are taken by the airline personnel engaged at the airport. Even if they make an effort, there is no desired outcome. 

Hence what you can do is write or email the airline’s customer office at its corporate headquarters in order to make a complaint. The majority of US airlines are required by the DOT to specify on their websites where and how complaints can be made. Thus, you can find a relevant form on the airline’s website. 

Make detailed notes of everything including when the incident happened. Write down the names of the carrier staff members you spoke with. Save all of your travel documentation (confirmation or ticket, baggage check tags, boarding pass, etc.) and the receipts for any additional costs you paid yourself due to the mistreatment.

But it is important to keep your calm and act sensibly. Your letter may, at most, result in a kind apology and an entry in the airline’s files if your demands are unreasonable, you are not polite, or you use unacceptable language.

You are recommended to refer to the official website of the DOT to read more about certain guidelines to write such complaints. This will certainly result in the airlines taking your complaint seriously. Your letter will assist them in identifying the cause of your issue. Besides, they will be encouraged to take the next steps to prevent similar incidents from happening to other passengers.

How to Contact the DOT for Complaints?

You can post complaints about the services provided by airlines. The DOT Office of Aviation Consumer Protection may be contacted for the same through a call, letter, or their online complaint form. In case you write a letter, don’t forget to write your full address and phone number. Also, mention the complete and exact information about your travel experience with the airline. The web form may be easily found on the website of the DOT. 

The DOT publishes a report with information every month. It shows the number of complaints received about airlines and what type of problems are being faced by passengers. 

This Air Travel Consumer Report remains available on the website of DOT. You will also find statistics filed by airlines with the DOT regarding flight delays, inappropriate handling of baggage, oversales etc.

How Can I Report Discrimination during Air Travel?

In such a case, you are suggested to file a complaint using the DOT’s online web form available on their website. You may also choose to send a letter or a completed paper complaint form to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division U.S. Department of Transportation. 

You need to mention your full name, address, and telephone number. Details such as the airline’s name, flight date, flight number, origin and destination cities of the trip, and a detailed description of the incident must also be given. A statement indicating that you would like the matter to be investigated by the Aviation Consumer Protection Division must be mentioned. 

So, once you submit your complaint, it will be reviewed and acknowledged. The matter will be examined and investigated. The DOT will take appropriate action based on their findings, which may include directing the airline to change its policies or procedures and recommending additional training for the employees involved. Apart from this, there could also be enforcement action against the specific airline.

Which Agency Handles Air Travel Complaints?

Besides the DOT, there are other agencies that handle air travel complaints. These are:

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 

This organization can be contacted for safety-related issues. They handle complaints regarding airline safety and can be reached through their hotline or website.

Transportation Security Administration 

This is a suitable agency for security concerns during air travel. They have a toll-free number and email address for travelers to report issues.

DOT Office of Aviation – Consumer Protection 

While this is part of the DOT, it’s worth mentioning that this office specifically focuses on aviation consumer protection and can assist with non-safety or security air service-related issues.

You are required to contact them with full details about your experience during a flight with a particular airline. Also make sure to write your full name and other required details. The website of DOT may be referred for the same. 

Airline or Ticket Agents Customer Service 

For immediate resolution of many air service-related issues, it’s recommended to contact the airline office or ticket agent’s customer service directly. Airlines are required to acknowledge and address consumer complaints within specific time limits.

Related FAQ’s

Here are some of the most commonly asked queries related to airline passenger rights in the USA. Take a look to stay informed and make a better choice for your upcoming travel.

What are US laws for airline passengers?

US laws ensure that passengers duly receive the compensation, as per certain conditions, if their flights are delayed for significant hours or cancelled. However, it is also to be confirmed with the specific airline whether they will and how much they will compensate. Besides, if passengers are denied boarding due to overbooking, they are entitled for compensation. If they face tarmac delays, airlines are required to provide them with food, water, and access to lavatories.

What to do if I face a disability-related issue at the airport?

If you encounter a disability-related issue, you can call the hotline of DOT to obtain assistance. They provide information about the rights of air travelers with disabilities and assist with time-sensitive disability-related issues. You must provide detailed information about the incident to facilitate the investigation and resolution process. Each agency has its own procedures for handling complaints. Thus, you are highly recommended to check their official websites or contact them directly for guidance on how to proceed.

Do airlines accommodate people with disabilities?

Yes, airlines are required to treat people with disabilities equally as their usual passengers. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) of 1986 enforced by the DOT prohibits airlines from discriminating against passengers with disabilities. It also defines certain guidelines to be followed by airlines to make facilities accessible for such passengers at the airport, through the airport, and on-board the flight. 

Do airlines pay if a flight is cancelled?

In such a case, you are entitled to receive a full refund, as per the latest declaration made by the US Department of Transportation. However, the airline may rebook you to your destination. You may also accept another flight or another transportation provided by the airline. There could be compensation in the form of travel credits as well. Such procedures vary from airline to airline.

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