Editor's note: We originally published this opinion piece on Dec. 29, 2021. A year later, nothing has changed even as another major airline is canceling 2,500-plus flights a day. That's why we're republishing this story, renewing our call for U.S. officials to step up and give travelers greater rights and protections.
Days after a winter storm passed, Southwest Airlines is in the midst of an unprecedented meltdown, canceling thousands of flights a day and leaving millions of Americans stranded and scrambling to salvage travel plans on their own dime. But this is nothing new: U.S. airlines big and small have canceled and delayed flights by the thousands again and again. From Delta this past summer to Spirit Airlines in summer 2021 and every airline in between, almost every major carrier has had a major operational failure in the last two years.
The writing is on the wall: As airlines continue struggling to recover from the pandemic, these mass cancellations are bound to keep happening. And aside from a public relations hit and some refunded ticket sales, airlines don't pay the price for repeatedly failing customers. Everyday Americans do.
In U.S. law, travelers have shockingly few rights or protections when buying plane tickets. There's no legal requirement for airlines to compensate travelers for these massive disruptions – or even to feed customers or put them up in a hotel when they get stranded overnight. Travelers are entitled to be placed on the next available flight (be it hours or days away) or request a refund and try to rebook their trip. That's really the only power we've got.
Even after giving airlines tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to survive the pandemic, the federal government has left it up to the airlines to decide how to do right by consumers. Until there are real penalties for these massive failures, airlines will continue overpromising and underdelivering. That's what they've been doing for years – it's part of the reason these cancellations keep piling up.
Enough is enough.
Today, we at Thrifty Traveler are once again calling on officials in Congress and the Biden administration to give travelers more power by requiring airlines to compensate passengers when they significantly delay or cancel flights for reasons other than weather. Similar requirements have been in place throughout Europe for nearly two decades and were recently introduced in Canada.
“Every time an airline cancels hundreds of flights in a day, thousands of Americans are left stranded or scrambling to salvage their travel plans with little guidance or assistance from the airline itself. That's unacceptable,” Thrifty Traveler CEO and Founder Jared Kamrowski said. “Requiring airlines to compensate customers when they delay or cancel flights would give travelers more control and power. But most importantly, it would help keep airlines accountable, limiting the mass disruptions we've seen over the last few years.”
To be fair, running an airline is a hard business even in the best conditions. Getting hundreds of planes on and off the ground on-time is incredibly complex, where a small storm, software outage, or mechanics' strike can result in days of scheduling issues. A massive storm like the snow and brutal cold that swept across the country last week is another animal entirely, and airlines shouldn't be held responsible for bad weather.
But that storm is long gone now. With clear skies across much of the country for the last several days, Southwest can no longer blame weather for 2,500-plus canceled flights a day.
There's no question the pandemic has made things harder. After downsizing through early retirements and exit packages, travel is back to near 2019 levels – and airlines can't grow fast enough. But they've stretched themselves too thin, packing schedules and passengers as tight as possible to make up for years of lost revenue … without leaving themselves enough wiggle room to recover when things go seriously wrong.
That's the common thread in almost every mass airline cancellation in the last year or two. It's especially painful recently, as cancellations have affected millions of Americans at a time when many are flying to join family and friends over the holidays – perhaps for the first time in years.
When things fall apart, what little comforts passengers can find from their airlines are in a “contract of carriage,” 50-plus page documents that vary from airline to airline. And the airlines themselves write these contracts, using words like “may” instead of “must” when it comes to offering hotel nights or placing affected customers on another airline to get them to their destination.
We need to do better by consumers and keep airlines accountable. The U.S. won't have to look far for how they could change things…
A Model to Do Right By Consumers
It'll come as a surprise to many Americans, but for European travelers, getting money from the airline after a delay or cancellation is old hat. It's been a part of their travel lives for nearly two decades.
Commonly referred to simply as EU261, this regulation passed by the European Commission in 2004 offers a broad set of passenger protections when things go wrong in the skies – far, far more than what's available here in the U.S. And that includes guaranteed compensation when the airline delays or cancels your flight, plus other rights like meals, hotel stays for overnight delays, and more.
Just how much you can get depends on the length of your flight – and the length of the delay or cancellation. Payouts range from 125 euro (about $133 USD) for a delay of less than two hours on a flight under 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) to as much as 600 euro ($637 USD) on a delay of four-plus hours or cancellation of a flight of 3,500 kilometers (2,174 miles) or longer.
That's enshrined in the law. No matter what else the airline does to help, they owe passengers that money. It also applies to foreign airlines departing from or flying within the European Union.
As expected, major European airlines fought against the measure as it was being proposed. And while Europe has seen its fair share of disruptions in the airline industry over the last year, it's nowhere close to two-plus years of mass delays and cancellations here in the U.S. – and at least travelers are compensated for their troubles.
This has been going on for days, weeks, months, and years now in the U.S., over and over again. The disruptions have touched practically every domestic carrier. This is bigger than weather and the pandemic.
And Europe isn't alone, either. Canada implemented its own “Air Passenger Protection Regulations” in 2019 that also guarantee compensation in the event of lengthy delays. Those payouts range from $400 CAD ($296 USD) for delays of three to six hours to $1000 CAD ($740 USD) for delays of nine or more hours – though smaller airlines can pay less.
Where Things Stand in the US
There have been several efforts over the years to do what Europe and Canada have done for consumers. They just haven't gotten anywhere.
Members of Congress have introduced bills that would create a broad set of passenger protections, including limiting add-on fees, ensuring prompt refunds, and guaranteeing compensation for disruptions. And just late last year, the U.S. Senate hauled airline CEOs into Congress to explain why they've canceled so many flights after bailouts that were designed to keep the airlines running at full strength through the pandemic. There were few satisfactory answers – and even fewer immediate solutions offered.
The Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, spearheaded by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, would go even farther than the laws in Europe and Canada. It would require airlines to refund the full cost of a ticket plus give passengers $1,350 when delaying flights. After failing to gain traction in previous years, Blumenthal and several Democratic colleagues reintroduced the bill last year.
“Almost everyone who has flown is familiar with how much of a hassle air travel can be, and COVID-19 has only amplified many of the challenges,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said in a statement about the bill last year. “It’s time for a new ‘Airline Passengers’'Bill of Rights and to stand up for the rights of all air passengers by ensuring ironclad consumer protections for air travel.”
But there's another possible avenue for action: The Department of Transportation and Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Advocacy organizations have urged Buttigieg to act unilaterally and create some additional passenger protections, as past department heads have done with security measures after the Sept. 11 attacks or to counter lengthy tarmac delays.
Buttigieg is clearly paying attention. He spearheaded a new customer rights dashboard and tried to get tough on airlines over the summer of 2022 after several mass delays and cancellations … with mixed results. With Southwest melting down after the holidays, the department said Monday it would “examine whether cancellations were controllable and if Southwest is complying with its customer service plan.” Buttigieg himself said Monday he was “tracking closely.”
From the halls of Congress to the White House, airlines wield tremendous power to fight any proposed changes or accountability.
Despite an avalanche of complaints from passengers seeking refunds that started when the pandemic first upended travel, only one U.S. airline (Frontier) has been fined or penalized for denying customers their money back, the one true right we have. Air Canada – which resisted giving out those refunds for more than a year – was also penalized … but a proposed $25.5 million fine was watered down to just a $2 million penalty after the department struck an agreement with the airline.
Airlines will fight this. They’ve done the best they can through an almost impossibly hard three years, they'll say. After suffering billions in losses since 2020, being forced to compensate passengers would make matters worse.
That may all be true. But the additional costs to airlines to do right by passengers would pale in comparison to tens of billions of dollars in subsidies we taxpayers have given those same airlines over the last two years.
Here's the most important part: It’s all in the airlines’ hands. They could be responsible and measured, selling flights with enough wiggle room to recover when things go wrong and uphold the commitments they’ve made to customers. If they do that, they won’t have to pay their customers a dime in additional compensation.
But if they go too far or fail and continue to leave their paying customers stressed and stranded, it’s time for the airlines to be held accountable.