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Consumer protection and liability

Airfares

Are airfares regulated in your jurisdiction?

No. Airfares were deregulated pursuant to the terms of the Airline Deregulation Act.

Passenger protection

What rules and liabilities are air carriers subject to in respect of:

(a) Flight delays and cancellations?

Carriers operating scheduled flights to, from or within the United States must provide details of ticketed or reserved passengers and the public notice of known changes in flight status (ie, delays of 30 minutes or more, cancellations and diversions). Information about a change in the status of a flight must be provided within 30 minutes of the carrier becoming aware of the change. 

Large US carriers are required to provide data on their websites concerning the on-time performance of their domestic routes, so that a passenger seeking to book a service can be apprised of the on-time performance of the carrier on that route.

(b) Oversold flights?

Carriers are permitted to oversell flights.

(c) Denied boarding?

Persons who are involuntarily denied boarding due to oversales are entitled to receive compensation. The regulations governing denied boarding apply to domestic services, and to international flights which are departing the United States. The regulations, set forth at 14 CFR 250, provide a sliding scale of compensation depending on whether the carrier is able to provide substitute transportation within specified periods.

The compensation varies depending on whether the carrier arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to arrive at the passenger's next airport:

  • within one hour; 
  • within more than one hour but no more than two hours (four hours for international flights); or
  • the carrier is unable to provide alternate transportation within those time constraints.  

 Passengers are free to bring private legal action for denial of carriage due to oversales.

(d) Access for disabled passengers?

The Air Carrier Access Act sets forth the general prohibition against disability discrimination against airline passengers. The Department of Transportation has promulgated regulations, set out in Part 382 of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which cover everything, including the accessibility of air carrier websites, the duties airlines face in the airport environment and the content and substance of responses given to complaints filed by passengers with disabilities.

(e) Lost, damaged or destroyed luggage?

The United States is a signatory to the Montreal Convention, the Warsaw Convention as amended by the Hague Protocol and Montreal Protocol 4 and the Warsaw Convention. When applicable, these treaties exclusively govern the rights and liabilities of passengers and air carriers during international transportation,  and limit recoverable damages for lost, damaged or delayed baggage  For example, under the Montreal Convention, damages are limited to 1,131 special drawing rights per passenger. (MC, Article 22(2)).

Where the treaties are not applicable (ie, for domestic air transportation), an air carrier’s conditions of carriage generally govern the rights and liabilities of the parties for lost, damaged or destroyed luggage. Under federal law, air carriers may not limit liability for lost, damaged or delayed baggage for less than $3,500 for each passenger (14 CFR 254.4). These amounts are adjusted for inflation from time to time.

(f) Retention and protection of passenger data?

The Federal Transportation Code does not contain any specific requirements concerning the privacy rights of air passengers. Federal statutes such as the Privacy Act govern the collection and use of personal information by the Federal government. The Department of Transportation required carriers to collect and maintain records that may contain private information, such as:

  • passenger lists, including names and emergency contact telephone numbers (14 CFR 243);
  • records of disability-related complaints (14 CFR 382.157); and
  • records of consumer complaints (air carriers) and customer reservations (charter operators) (14 CFR Part 249).

The Department of Transportation requires carriers to adhere to the terms of their own privacy policies. Failure on the part of an airline to follow the terms of its stated policy would be viewed by the department as an “unfair and deceptive” practice. It has imposed penalties on carriers for failing to adhere to such policies.  

Cargo

What rules and liabilities apply to the air carriage of cargo?

The United States is a signatory to the Montreal Convention,  and the Warsaw Convention as amended by the Hague Protocol and Montreal Protocol 4. Where applicable, these treaties exclusively govern the rights and liabilities of the parties for the international transportation of cargo by air. Which treaty governs will depend on the location of the places of departure and destination of the cargo. 

Under the Montreal Convention an air carrier is strictly liable for the destruction, loss of or damage to, the goods “upon condition only” that the event which caused damage occurred during the carriage by air (Montreal Convention, Art 18 (1)).  

The carrier’s liability is limited to 19 special drawing rights per kilogram based on the weight of the consignment – this limit is unbreakable. The limit may be higher if the consignor makes, at the time the cargo is handed over, a special declaration of interest in delivery at destination and has paid a supplementary sum, if required by the carrier. An air carrier also is liable for damage occasioned by delay unless it proves that it took all reasonable measures to avoid the damage or it was impossible to take such measures (Article 19).

For carriage of cargo by air within the United States, the air carrier’s air waybill contains the conditions of carriage that will govern the liability of the air carrier. Similar to the treaty, there are limits of liability and notice of claim requirements. Federal common law generally governs the air carrier’s liability for loss of goods and enforcement of the limitation of liability in the air waybill.

Marketing and advertising

Do any special rules apply to the marketing and advertising of aviation services?

Under the Airline Deregulation Act, states may not attempt to regulate the rates, routes or services of airlines. The Department of Transportation regulates airline marketing and advertising under its authority to forbid unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation.   

The Department of Transportation’s policies are set out in both regulations and administrative decisions. The Department’s full-fare advertising rule is codified at 14 CFR Section 399.84, and covers advertising that markets to US consumers in all media, including print, television, radio, billboard and the Internet. The department requires all advertising that states a price for air transportation to state the entire price a customer must pay. Under this rule, carriers must include all government-imposed taxes and fees and all carrier-imposed surcharges in the advertised fare price.  

Complaints handling

Do any special rules apply to consumer complaints handling in the aviation industry?

The Department of Transportation has detailed requirements concerning the handling of consumer claims. Its Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings can bring enforcement action against carriers that fail to meet their duties to their passengers.

The Department of Transportation requires airlines to place on their websites and on all e-ticket confirmations either a mailing address or web address where customers may file complaints about a service.   

Both US and foreign carriers must acknowledge receipt of a consumer complaint within 30 days of receiving it and send a substantive response to the consumer within 60 days of receiving it. Foreign carriers are required to respond only to complaints from customers that are related to a carrier's services being marketed in the United States, and flights to or from the United States. There are special regulatory provisions concerning disability-related complaints.

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