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Few things are as infuriating as a delayed flight, and canceled flights can be downright enraging, especially around the holidays. However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the airline industry into a tailspin like never before with hundreds, if not thousands, of flights being canceled.
Unfortunately, airlines don't guarantee their schedules and the fine print on your ticket (or email confirmation) usually means you can't sue for a canceled flight. But that doesn't mean you can't or won't be compensated, and you may have some legal rights if your flight was canceled.
Unforeseen events like bad weather and mechanical issues mean that no airline can promise perfect, on-time departures and arrivals. (Not only that, but most airlines expressly, if in small print, reserve the right to delay or cancel flights altogether as they deem necessary.) But carriers would rather get you where you want to go than have a bunch of angry customers.
So almost all airlines have cancellation policies designed to either get passengers to their destinations as close to on-time as possible or compensate them in some way for their inconvenience.
Each carrier's policies may vary, but generally, if your flight is canceled due to unforeseen events an airline will:
None of these reimbursements are required by law, however, and many discount airlines don't offer the same options as full-service airlines.
On the other hand, when an airline decides to cancel flights for their own reasons, U.S. Department of Transportation regulations provide that passengers are entitled to refunds “regardless of the reason” if the passengers choose not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline.
In the case of COVID-19-related travel disruptions, many airlines are following DOT regulations and are refunding customers whose flights have been canceled. They are also allowing customers to change their flights for free or cancel flights in exchange for a credit to use on a later trip.
But just because you can't normally sue an airline if your flight was canceled, doesn't mean you don't have any rights at all. In 2011, the DOT enacted an airline passenger "Bill of Rights" -- a list of consumer protections regarding lost luggage, long delays, hidden fees, and getting bumped from your flight.
If you are involuntarily "bumped" from an oversold flight, you are entitled to double your ticket price (up to $675), even if the airline can still get you to your destination within 1-2 hours of your original scheduled arrival time. Longer delays can entitle you to four times your ticket value (up to $1,350).
Airlines are also prohibited from delaying flights on the tarmac for longer than 4 hours, and must provide access to food, water, and lavatories in the event of extended tarmac delays.
You can find out more about airline regulations and your rights as a passenger in FindLaw's Airline Rules section.