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

02.A - Z of rights

Fares and reservations                                     Death or personal injury
Overbooking                                                   Baggage
Seating                                                          Cabin service
Your health                                                    Special needs

Fares and reservations

Discount fares may give you less flexibility than full fares, as they can come with restrictions on cancelling or changing a booking. Full fares may allow you to request a booking change to a limited extent or you may have to pay extra.

Some airlines have very strict refund policies. For example, Virgin Blue’s conditions state no payment is refundable under any circumstances. “If a Guest fails to travel on the scheduled services specified in the Booking, the Booking will lapse, become valueless and not be substitutable for other services,” according to the terms and conditions of carriage. We think this sort of condition could be challenged under consumer protection laws depending on the circumstances.


Overbooking is a common practice in some countries. Even if you have a reservation and check in on time, there may be more passengers than there are available seats. On both domestic and international flights, passengers are asked to volunteer to change their flights if overbooking occurs. If no-one volunteers, the airline will re-allocate some bookings. If you’re affected, you may be entitled to compensation for the inconvenience.

There’s an agreed industry rate for compensation in Australia. For international flights, most countries have ‘denied boarding compensation regulations’. Check with your airline whether compensation is available in the countries you’re travelling to/from.


Most airlines say they can’t guarantee any seat and reserve the right to change seating, even after you’ve boarded the plane. In such circumstances you’ll either have to accept any seat allocated, even if this involves a downgrade, or wait until the next flight on which a seat is available in the class of service paid for.

If your seating is downgraded, we think you should be entitled to at least a partial refund for the difference between the class you booked and the seat you’re given.

Your health

The onus is on the passenger to disclose, when you make your booking, any illness or other condition that may make it unsafe for you to travel. An airline may refuse to carry you if it’s not completely satisfied that it’s safe for you to fly. If you have a pre-existing physical condition, most airlines won’t accept responsibility for any illness, injury, disability or death caused by that pre-existing condition.

If you become ill during a flight, cabin crew are qualified to administer first aid and resuscitation. The decision to continue to your scheduled destination or divert the flight will be at the discretion of the crew and will depend on the seriousness of your condition.

Death or personal injury

The liability of domestic airlines for the death of or personal injury to a passenger is limited to $500,000.

If your journey involves an ultimate destination or stop in a country other than the country of departure, compensation will be governed by international conventions (see Which convention?, for specifics). Travel or life insurance can provide protection in addition to the limits set by domestic laws or international conventions.


If your baggage is lost or damaged on an international flight, compensation is governed by the relevant international convention.

You’ll need to make a written claim for lost or damaged baggage within fairly short time limits. Report the loss or damage before you leave the airport. If the baggage doesn’t turn up very soon, follow that up with a letter, usually within seven days. The time limit can be as little as three days to report lost or damaged cabin baggage and up to 21 days if everything goes missing. If you miss these deadlines you lose any right to claim.

Regardless of which conventions or laws apply to your journey, if your baggage is worth more than the airline is liable to compensate you, declare this when you check in. Some airlines will offer you additional insurance for an extra fee. Otherwise, make sure your travel insurance policy’s baggage limits are high enough to cover what you’re taking with you.

Cabin service

If your clothing is damaged (for example, if an attendant spills wine or food) report the matter to the cabin crew immediately. You should, at the very least, have your laundry or dry cleaning bill paid. If you think the food or cabin service is unsatisfactory, make a written complaint to the airline as soon as possible after your journey.

Special needs

Special meals and seating needs should be arranged when you make your booking. Make arrangements in advance if you expect an airline to carry unaccompanied children or someone who is incapacitated or ill. Carriage of people with such special requirements is usually “at the discretion” of the airline. For example, Jetstar won’t allow children requiring supervision to fly unaccompanied, whereas many other airlines do accommodate children aged over 5 or 6 travelling unaccompanied.


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