The federal government is responsible for regulating the business practices of the airline industry. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has enacted rules and regulations to protect consumers and is also responsible for investigating “unfair or deceptive practices” by air carriers. For more details about these rules and your rights, check the DOT webpage and A Consumer Guide to Air Travel. Some of these rights are described below.

Purchasing Airline Tickets

Airline carriers must disclose the full price of an airline ticket, including all taxes, fees and surcharges, in their advertising, on their websites, and on your e-ticket confirmation. Airlines must also disclose any additional fees charged for checked bags, seat assignments, meals, or other optional services. However, these additional fees must be offered on an “opt-in” basis, and you cannot be charged unless you affirmatively select an option that will increase the ticket price.

Changing or Canceling an Airline Ticket

Generally, airlines may charge you for changing or canceling a ticket. Make sure you know the cancelation rules and any applicable penalties before booking your flight. DOT’s Travel Tips webpage provides details about cancelation rules and your rights.

Tarmac Delays

Some flights are delayed on the airport tarmac before taking off or after landing. Federal rules limit the amount of time a flight can remain stopped on the tarmac. In some instances, airlines must allow passengers to deplane after a certain amount of time has passed and are required to provide food and water, as well as medical care if needed. Check the DOT webpage for more information about tarmac delay rules.

Overbooking Flights and Bumping

Airline overbooking is a common practice. It is not prohibited by any law or regulation. However, when you are involuntarily “bumped” from a flight, you may be entitled to receive compensation. The DOT webpage provides detailed information about the kinds of compensation you may be entitled to when you are bumped from a flight.

The European Commission (EC) has its own rules about bumping passengers when traveling in European Union countries. For more information, see the EC website.

Delayed, Damaged, or Lost Baggage

Airlines must usually compensate you for lost, delayed, or damaged bags. The DOT webpage provides information about your rights with regard to baggage issues.

Traveling with a Disability

Federal law prohibits discrimination against passengers with disabilities and requires airlines to provide certain accommodations such as accessible bathrooms. The DOT has extensive rules outlining the rights of passengers with disabilities and the requirements of air carriers on its Disability Training webpage.

Service Animals

Service animals are trained to assist persons with disabilities and are not considered pets. In most instances, domestic airlines must allow passengers to travel with service animals in the cabin. Sometimes service animals can be banned from a flight if they pose a safety or health risk or cause significant disruption to others. The DOT has a helpful online booklet titled “Air Travel with Service Animals.”

How to File a Complaint about an Airline

When problems arise about a flight, you should try to find out what your rights are under the airline’s contract of carriage. Air carriers must display their contracts of carriage on their websites along with information about how to file a complaint electronically and by postal mail. See airline contact information provided by DOT.

You may also file a complaint about an airline with the United States Department of Transportation:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590
Phone: (202) 366-2220; (TTY: 202-366-0511)

Also, you may wish to contact your Senator or Congressional representative.

Tracking an Airline’s Performance

The DOT publishes a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report that is designed to assist consumers with information on the quality of services provided by the airlines. The report contains detailed information about flight delays, mishandled baggage, oversold flights, and other consumer complaints. For more information, see Air Travel Consumer Reports.