Your rights in flight

Delays due to natural causes, lost baggage or poor cabin service can ruin your travel plans.
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  • Updated:21 Jun 2011

01.Your rights in flight

passengers on a plane

Most airlines naturally want to limit their liability for any losses or inconveniences you encounter as a result of delays and cancellations. In some cases we think their terms and conditions wouldn’t hold up if challenged. So if you think you have a valid case against an airline, don’t necessarily take no for an answer.

Delays and cancellations due to volcanic ash and other natural events

  • Natural events such as volcanic ash clouds are beyond the control of airlines, and therefore carriers are not responsible for reimbursing passengers' costs. However, CHOICE applauds the action by some airlines to assist passengers with refunds, taxi vouchers and assistance with accommodation.
  • Travel insurance cover will depend on your individual policy, but often natural disasters and other unexpected catastrophes are covered. Check with your insurer for specific details and cover limits.
  • If you are out of pocket because of flight delays or cancellations, keep your receipts but try to keep your expenditure as low as possible. Airlines will often address claims for reimbursements on a case by case basis.
  • If you abandon your flight plans and use alternative means of transport, you will most likely forego any refund of your original booking. 

Travel Insurance - how much protection does it give me?

CHOICE surveyed 21 insurers in 2010. The following information is based on that survey:

  • All insurers will usually void (cancel) insurance if you travel against government warnings (such as DFAT level 5) or mass media advice.
  • Some general exclusions that insurers will not cover: Acts of war, nuclear explosions or radioactivity and chemical weapons (Note: Insurers provided cover in Japan following the 2011 earthquake / tsunami because the nuclear damage came as a secondary result of a natural disaster).
  • Only AAMI and Southern Cross insurance will not cover you in the event of a terrorist activity. All others cover medical and emergency costs. Ouch, Insure-N-Go, CGU and Itrek will also provide cancellations cover.
  • All insurers cover natural disasters (includes domestic travel insurance, although limits may apply for this cover e.g. STA provides a max limit of $1500). Some insurers may restrict their cancellations cover so that it only applies before you depart, and cover will only apply to an event once(even when an event is ongoing for an extended period, as was the case with ash clouds).
  • Only AAMI and 1Cover exclude cover in the event of a pandemic/epidemic. Aussie travel, Medibank, B-Secure, WorldCare and Zuji will not provide cancellation cover due to pandemic – all others provide full cover.
  • Other typical exclusions from travel insurance are risky sporting activities, such as hang-gliding or bungy jumping. For clarification on travel insurance cover for scuba diving or any other pursuit you are unsure about, always check directly with your travel insurer.

Need to know

  • If you think you have a valid complaint against an airline but it's not being helpful, use this article to find out how to complain.
  • Some airlines have very strict refund conditions, particularly on discount fares.
  • Even if you have a reservation and check in on time there may be more passengers than there are available seats. What are your rights if a flight is deliberately overbooked?
  • Most airlines say they can't guarantee any seat and reserve the right to change seating.
  • Airlines don't usually guarantee their timetables either so where do you stand if flights are delayed or cancelled?
  • An airline may refuse to allow you to travel if you have health problems.
  • The liability of airlines for the death of or personal injury to a passenger is limited.
  • The time limits to make claims for lost, stolen or damaged baggage are fairly short.
  • And what are your rights when it comes to cabin service and catering for special needs?

The pecking order

In the event of a delay, missed connection or cancellation, airlines most often look after passengers in the following order:

  • Special-needs customers such as disabled flyers or unaccompanied children
  • Elite passengers with frequent flyer miles to show they travel with the airline regularly
  • First-class passengers
  • Business-class passengers
  • Full-fare economy-class passengers
  • Other frequent flyers
  • Passengers holding discount tickets who aren’t frequent flyers.

Even if you fall towards the bottom of the list, it’s still worth asking for the airline’s help.



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