Things go wrong on your flight? Here’s what to ask for.

Aug 6, 2021

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.

The aviation industry is full of moving parts, making it incredibly tough for airlines to execute their operations to perfection on a daily basis in the best of times. But when airlines are faced with current challenges to their flight schedules due to weather, operational issues and passengers taking to the skies after being grounded by the pandemic, it’s even worse.

Related: Feeling rusty? TPG staffers and readers share their recent travel faux-pas 

From the time you leave your house to the time you arrive at your destination, any number of things could go wrong — surly gate agents, weather delays, broken equipment, ground stops and of course the worst of all: other passengers.

When things go wrong for airlines, you can really tell how much an airline values their customers by the way it responds to these service mishaps. So when exactly are you entitled to compensation for a problem? Let’s analyze some of the more common situations, and also take a look at the personal experiences of our own TPG readers.

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In This Post

When Shouldn’t You Ask for Compensation?

In general, if an airline does its job of getting you from Point A to Point B both safely and reasonably quickly — and in the class of service you paid for — you might just have to bite your tongue. Let’s take an American Airlines flight I took from Washington, D.C., (DCA) to Chicago (ORD) as an example of mishaps that don’t entitle you to compensation. I’ve flown this exact route close to 100 times over the last four years, usually without any excitement. But all that went out the window when I arrived at DCA to fly home from my girlfriend’s graduation.

Boarding was delayed 45 minutes

I have to hand it to the gate agents working this flight, as they did a phenomenal job communicating with us. Anyone who bothered to listen would have learned that there was nasty weather in Chicago, and O’Hare air traffic control was delaying incoming flights to space out the arrivals.

Not only was this a weather delay, but the order came from up high — the control tower — not from American Airlines. When runways are wet and visibility is low, staggering arrivals is a great way to keep everyone safe. While the delay was inconvenient, it certainly didn’t entitle me to any compensation. Note that weather delays apply to incoming aircraft as well, so even though you’re looking up at sunny skies, your plane might be sitting under a blanket of snow in New York.

Excuse me sir, I think you made a wrong turn

About 70 minutes into our 90-minute flight I checked the airshow to see if we’d started our descent. We hadn’t, but somewhere along the way we’d made a U-turn and were now flying away from Chicago. I knew what this meant — an indefinite holding pattern, and possibly a diversion if the weather didn’t let up.

A few circles later and we were eventually cleared to land, but all told the holding pattern added an hour to our flight time. Again I was annoyed, but safety comes first and when our Airbus A321 ate up every available inch of runway landing, I was thankful we’d erred on the side of caution.

Stuck on the Plane

Just when I thought this saga was coming to an end, there was more. We arrived at our gate and waited, but the jet bridge didn’t budge an inch. Turns out it was experiencing mechanical problems and we actually had to switch gates. While we were all ready to get off that plane and get on with our days, AA isn’t responsible for faulty airport equipment. Even though I encountered three different delays on this trip, I won’t be asking AA for any form of compensation.

You might also be delayed due to your own airline’s ground operations. Chicago-based American Airlines flyers are probably all too familiar with the awkward “Y” shape of AA’s Terminal 3 at O’Hare, which is just narrow enough that only one plane can generally enter or exit at a time. If American decides to let the flight next to you taxi first, you won’t get anything for the delay.

When is Compensation Justified?

On the other hand, you should certainly speak up if an airline doesn’t deliver on what it promised — or more specifically, on what you paid for. In fact there are two instances where airlines are obligated by law to compensate passengers.

EU 261/2004. If you’re flying to or from a European Union member state, you’re legally entitled to up to €600 (US$705) in compensation for unreasonable delays. The exact amount depends on the length of the flight and length of the delay, but with only a few exceptions, there’s not much room for airlines to wiggle out of this law.

U.S. DOT Passenger Bill of Rights. While not as strictly regulated as our European counterparts, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has also outlined scenarios in which airlines are expected to compensate passengers. These include involuntary bumps, lost luggage and long delays on the tarmac of three hours or more.

Our readers were quick to point out that just because you ask doesn’t guarantee that you’ll receive anything. It’s in this gray area that we find most of the problems travelers actually encounter on a day-to-day basis. Things such as broken entertainment systems, spotty Wi-Fi, delays caused by the airline or lazy or even downright rude service.

Compensation Experiences With the Legacy Airlines

Knowing how compensation should work doesn’t necessarily always mean that it actually does work the same way. We asked readers in our TPG Lounge to share their real-life experiences  in getting compensation for in-flight issues on each of the “Big 3” legacy airlines,

American Airlines

In early 2018, American Airlines began rolling out a new technology called “iSolve” which allows flight attendants to offer in-flight compensation from their tablets. Specifically mentioning this system seems to help.

“Had non-working WiFi on a PHL-MIA [Philadelphia-Miami] flight. When I mentioned it to the FA, I asked if they could compensate with the new system they have on their handheld tablets. Within a few minutes, I had 2,000 AAdvantage miles in my account.” — Paul G.

“Flying AA from Dublin to Philadelphia, I discovered someone had broken off their plug in the headphone jack. Asked the FA if they have a tool to dig it out, and he said, ‘no, sorry,’ and started to walk away. I asked how I was supposed to use the in-flight entertainment, and he paused and said, ‘how about I give you 4000 miles to make up for it?’ So I just watched subtitled Chinese films the whole way.” — Jason M.

Tweeting at the airline’s customer service team, submitting a request for compensation online or writing a letter the old fashioned way are other options that have met with success…

“$200 voucher on AA for a broken tray table in F. Contacted from the plane on Twitter and sent a pic. Had the voucher before I landed.” — Mike C.

“I was on AA Business class MIA-GRU [Miami-Sao Paulo] and I had pre ordered my meal. Apparently they ran out of the meal I had pre-ordered. Upon return I wrote to AA and was given 15,000 miles.”  — Jessica V.

Delta Air Lines

Airlines know that they have to keep their elite members and premium cabin passengers the happiest, and will often use in-flight compensation as a way to cut off any bad impressions before they start to fester.

“I was in Delta One from MSP [Minneapolis] to AMS [Amsterdam] and they ran out of the meal I wanted, they proactively gave me 15,000 miles without saying anything. I am Delta Diamond. In retrospect they gave me $200 for running out of ravioli.”  — Ellen M.

Just remember to think through the offer before you accept it, and make sure you’re being fairly compensated for whatever happened.

“Delta HNL-ATL [Honolulu-Atlanta] Delta One lay flat seat would not recline at all to sleep for overnight flight. Diamond status which they knew (not sure if that changed their offer) but offered me 15k miles right on the spot. I accepted didn’t ask for more but probably should have after thinking about it.”  — Tim K.

Whether it’s a minor inconvenience or a scary moment, often you won’t receive anything unless you ask.

“I was sitting first class on a Delta flight from MCO [Orlando] to LAX [Los Angeles]. The wifi wouldn’t work. I asked for some sort of compensation, and the flight attendant put my information in a request on their app as a generic inconvenience (or something like that). I ended up getting 5k skymiles for the inconvenience.”  — Andy M.

“I got 15,000 skymiles for letting Delta know of an aborted takeoff because the captain forgot to set the flaps. That and a form email.”  — Mike Z.

United Airlines

United appears to be taking a more proactive approach to offering compensation lately, including the “surprise and delight” of landing to find a compensation offer in your inbox.

“Wi-Fi wasn’t working on a United flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt. When I landed, I had a email from United offering me 5,000 points for the inconvenience.”  — Sarah C.

United seems to regularly send out different offers based on a customer’s elite status.

“IAD [Washington Dulles] to CDG [Paris] Polaris Bus. Was diverted for about 4 hours total to SNN [Shannon, Ireland] for a medical emergency. Husband, United Gold got 8750 points or $175, he took the points. I, with no status, offered 6750 points or $125 credit. I took the credit” — Valerie C.

A few years back United even offered up free elite status to remedy a bad service experience.

“I had no status with united and was on a full fare first class domestic ticket. I wrote and complained the flight attendant in first class had to be on her first flight. Service was terrible. I got silver status with no reply and no response.”  — George A.

But, and I’m not surprised here, United’s response to the worst injustice of all (sarcasm) was mediocre at best.

“I was forced to fly United (route monopoly) and got a few hundred miles for doing so.”  — Matt S.

How To Get Compensated

Readers also reported success in getting credits or miles from JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest and a number of international carriers. If and when you run into problems on a flight, here’s the approach you take:

  1. Figure out if your issue warrants compensation, using some of the examples above.
  2. How much is fair? Here you have to balance the severity of the issue, how much you paid for your ticket and what, if any, elite status you hold with the airline to come up with a number you think is fair. Since many airlines offer compensation as miles and not cash, consult TPG’s valuations to figure out how much your offer is actually worth.
  3. Document the issue (photographs if possible) and ask as soon as possible. The three U.S. legacy carriers have the ability to offer compensation immediately in flight, so why let the problem drag on? If the flight attendants aren’t being helpful or responsive and the plane has Wi-Fi, you can also tweet or email the airline before you land.
  4. Follow up until the issue is solved. Document the dates and times you contacted the airline, who you spoke to (flight attendant or customer service agent’s name) and keep those records until you’ve been compensated.

It’s never fun when things go wrong, but if you stay calm and polite, the answer you’re looking for might be just around the corner.

And remember, if your delay stretches more than a couple of hours you should look into whether your credit card offers trip delay insurance.

Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson

Featured photo by wundervisuals/Getty Images

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