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.
Delay or cancellation
Airlines don't usually guarantee their timetables. They reserve the right to substitute alternative airlines or aircraft and alter or omit stopping places shown on your ticket. They won't necessarily take responsibility if you fail to make a connecting flight as a result. If you're prevented from travelling due to unexpected circumstances, some airlines will provide you with a credit for future travel (possibly after deducting a fee).
If the delay or cancellation is due to bad weather, for example, airlines will usually try to help you get to your destination but they won't be responsible for paying any costs or expenses you may incur as a result of the delay or cancellation. The time and means of transport used to get you to your destination will also be at the discretion of the airline. Of course, the airlines are still bound by consumer protection laws so they can't completely refuse to help you.
Other examples of unforeseen circumstances include natural disasters, wars, civil disturbances, industrial disputes, loading restrictions, terrorism or government action. If the airline is unwilling to offer assistance or a credit, we think you should be given a refund. If the delay or cancellation is the fault of the airline (aircraft maintenance, sick crew members, boarding irregularities), most airlines will either:
- carry you on another scheduled service as soon as space is available without additional charge (if you have to be upgraded to a different class, you shouldn't incur extra expense),
- reroute you to your destination by one of its own services, with another airline or by other mutually agreed means of transport at no additional cost, or
- give you a refund.
Payments for accommodation, transport, meals and phone calls are at the discretion of the airline but it's always worth asking for any assistance you need.
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 – you may never get the money back. 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.
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 Australia's conditions state no payment is refundable under any circumstances, dependent on the Fare Rules of each ticket. 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.
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.
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 means 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.
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. Travel or life insurance can provide protection in addition to the limits set by domestic laws or international conventions.
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 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 five or six travelling alone.
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, then
- 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.
Travel Insurance - how much protection does it give me?
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.
For details of which policies cover what, check our travel insurance reviews and comparisons.
How to complain
Regardless of what an airline says it will or won't do in its terms and conditions, you have rights under the Competition and Consumer Act and state fair trading laws if an airline doesn't deliver the service you'd reasonably expect.
If an airline doesn't take reasonable steps to help you when your flights are delayed or cancelled, don't put up with it. Complain to the airline in writing. If you don't get a reasonable response, go to your state department of consumer affairs or fair trading and lodge a formal complaint. Our small claims courts and tribunals are designed to give consumers an inexpensive means of exercising their rights when they're treated unfairly. We urge you to exercise yours.
Airline Consumer Advocate
You can (and should) also lodge a complaint with the Airline Consumer Advocate, an industry-funded body that was set up in 2012 to facilitate "the resolution of unresolved complaints about airline services". Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Tiger and REX airlines all take part in the scheme, which handles complaints about flight delays or cancellations, fees, airport and in-flight customer service, refund requests, baggage services, frequent flyer programs, and other issues.
But there is some question about how much the service can really do. In 2014, 40% of complaints were left unresolved, and the time it took to resolve complaints went from an average of 14.9 days in 2013 to 18.3 days in 2014.
The liability of domestic airlines is determined by the Civil Aviation (Carriers' Liability) Act 1959 and the applicable state and territory fair trading laws. The Montreal Convention also applies to international flights, and it sets out international provisions for damages. However, many airlines provide amounts above those set out in these provisions.