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GET IT STRAIGHT: THERE IS NO RULE 240.
By Joe Brancatelli
July 26, 2007 -- Can we get just one thing straight? Rule 240 is an urban legend.

If you traveled 30 years ago, when the airlines were regulated, Rule 240 actually did mean something. It was the shorthand for a federal regulation that required an airline to immediately reaccommodate a passenger whose flight was cancelled or delayed. Rule 240 was the ultimate passenger's bill of rights: If an airline canceled or delayed you, it was legally bound to put you on its next flight out, or, failing that, the next flight operated by any other airline on the route.

Rule 240 disappeared with the Civil Aeronautics Board and the regulated airline industry. It has not existed for 30 years. And what far too many otherwise savvy business travelers do not understand is that the spirit, sensibility and civility of Rule 240 no longer fits into the screw-the-customer style of today's airline management.

If a carrier cancels or delays you now--as they have done with alarming frequency this summer--you have the right to remain servile. They'll get you home when it suits them--or they'll just abandon you where you stand. It's up to them and you have virtually no rights and no right to complain about not having any rights.

CONTRACTS
OF CARRIAGE

Here's where to find the contracts of the major U.S. carriers.

BIG SIX CARRIERS

American Airlines
Continental Airlines
Delta Air Lines
Northwest Airlines
United Airlines
US Airways

ALTERNATE AIRLINES

Alaska Airlines
AirTran Airways
Allegiant Air
ATA Airlines
ExpressJet Airlines
Frontier Airlines
JetBlue Airways
Midwest Airlines
Skybus Airlines
Spirit Airlines
Southwest Airlines
Sun Country Airlines

HAWAII CARRIERS

Aloha Airlines
Go!/Mesa Airlines
Hawaiian Airlines

ALL BUSINESS

Eos Airlines
Maxjet Airways

Think I'm kidding? Take a gander at the carriers' contracts of carriage. Your rights under these rigged documents--you agree to their terms when you buy a plane ticket--are negligible. Almost none promise that they'll put you on another airline if they've screwed up. Some go even further: If they cancel you, your sole remedy is a refund. No matter that you're halfway around the world and far from home. If you don't want to wait for them to reaccommodate you, no matter how long it takes, you can have a refund and figure out your own way home.

The wording varies from carrier to carrier, of course, but most of the major airlines have contracts of carriage remarkably similar to the one used by Delta Air Lines.

For starters, Delta's contract wants you to know that your ticket purchase guarantees you nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"Published schedules, flight times, aircraft type, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in your ticket or Delta's published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract," Delta's lawyers have written.

Delta, the contract adds, "may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time. Delta will have no liability for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule for any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings."

And what does Delta say it will do if it does cancel your flight, mess up your connections or leave you stranded?

"When, as a result of factors within Delta's control, you miss a connection due to flight delays [or] your flight is cancelled Delta will transport you to your destination on our next flight on which seats are available in the class of service you originally purchased. At our sole discretion, we may arrange for your travel on another carrier or via ground transportation. (Emphasis mine.)

Did you notice that "factors within Delta's control" line? You'd be surprised how broadly the airlines interpret clauses like that. If there's a weather delay, Delta and most other carriers say they are not responsible. If there's a strike, Delta and the other carriers say they are not responsible. Air traffic control delays? Not their problem, either.

Doesn't any carrier value your business enough to reaccommodate you quickly if they've screwed up?

Alaska Airlines' contract of carriage seems to do that. "If acceptable to the passenger, [Alaska will] provide transportation on another airline's direct flight, or combination of connecting carriers in the same or higher class of service on the passenger's ticket at no additional charge."

And Continental Airlines does have some interesting language in its contract. "Provided that the tariff covering the original transportation permits routing via the carrier which will transport the passenger, CO will reaccommodate the passenger in the same class of service on the next available flight on another carrier." Of course, there aren't many fares that permit transferability these days, so that policy isn't nearly as passenger-friendly as Alaska Air's policy.

As you peruse the airlines' contracts, you'll find some interesting little quirks. One example: At least three airlines--United, Delta and Northwest--call their nearly toothless passenger reaccommodation clauses Rule 240. Their proprietary Rule 240s have no relationship to the pre-deregulation federal Rule 240, of course, but some lawyers must have thought that it was funny to confuse unsuspecting passengers.

Another example: Few airlines will guarantee you a room and a meal if they strand you overnight. Most contracts only promise to make an "effort" if you're stuck out of town. And almost all of the contracts specifically take the airlines off the hook if you're stuck at your hometown airport waiting out a delayed or cancelled flight. They tell you to go home, no matter how far away home is from the airport.

Another development worth noting: Several airline contracts of carriage now specifically proscribe make-goods such as hotel rooms and meal vouchers. As the AirTran Airways contract of carriage bluntly puts it: "AirTran will not provide or reimburse passengers for expenses incurred due to delays or cancellations of flights."

So do you finally understand now? Rule 240 is dead and long buried. In its place is a patchwork of legal documents especially designed to maximize your pain when an airline screws up.

My best advice? Before you step on another flight, print out the contract of carriage of the airline you'll be using. Read it carefully. Stick a copy of the printout with your other travel documents.

You'll certainly be disappointed by and disgusted with the contracts. But at least you'll know the legal lay of the land and you won't be standing at a ticket counter vainly invoking a federal regulation that was long ago consigned to the dustbin of air-travel history.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.