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Passenger Bill of Rights Doesn't Allow You to Sue Airlines

Holiday travel can be a headache -- especially if you're traveling by air. But if an airline loses your luggage or leaves you trapped on the tarmac for hours, how does the Passenger Bill of Rights come into play?

The answer may fly in the face of air travelers' expectations. While the Passenger Bill of Rights punishes airlines for behaving badly, it doesn't give passengers a ticket to sue.

In fact, it doesn't give passengers any new powers at all.

The so-called Passenger Bill of Rights is actually a regulation for airlines, enacted and enforced by the Department of Transportation. Some in Congress want to make it a federal law, but their efforts have been met with some turbulence.

The DOT rules first took off in 2009, after passengers complained of being cooped up in plane cabins for hours without food, water, or working lavatories.

Under the Passenger Bill of Rights, the DOT can investigate violations and slap airlines with fines.

The rule on tarmac delays has gotten the most attention. For domestic flights, airlines must allow passengers to deplane if there's more than a three-hour tarmac delay. For international flights, it's four hours.

Airlines must also provide food, water, medical, and lavatory access during a tarmac delay, or face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

Lesser-known parts of the Passenger Bill of Rights include:

  • A refund of checked-luggage fees if an airline loses your checked bags. (This doesn't apply for delayed luggage.)
  • Compensation for passengers who are bumped from their flights -- up to $650 for short delays, and up to $1,300 for long ones.
  • A 24-hour grace period for air travelers to make changes to their itineraries with no penalty.

Many airlines have also adopted their own Passenger Bill of Rights, offering refunds in the event of delays.

But passengers are still pretty much powerless under the DOT's Passenger Bill of Rights -- all they can do is complain if something goes wrong, and wait for the feds to investigate.

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