The Urgent Need for a US Airline Passenger Bill of Rights

Category Business

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U.S. airline passengers in early 2023 faced the highest rate of flight delays since 2014 due to an epic meltdown of Southwest Airlines, resulting in the Biden administration proposing new rules that would require airlines to provide compensation for delays and cancelations. Consumer advocates have long sought greater passenger rights for airline travelers, especially since the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. Action groups such as the U.S. Division of Transportation, 23 airlines, and customer advocacy groups created the bill of rights, which provides protections for those affected by delays and cancellations. The Passenger Rights Regulation of the European Union requires two forms of compensation if flights are delayed or canceled, while JetBlue offers their own compensation.

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U.S. airline passengers in early 2023 faced the highest rate of flight delays since 2014. That heightened level of delays came shortly after December 2022, when Southwest Airlines experienced an epic meltdown, canceling 71% of its flights.

In response, on May 8, 2023, the Biden administration proposed new rules that would require airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly delayed because of causes – unlike bad weather – that are under the control of the airlines. Under the new rules, the airlines would need to offer meal vouchers, overnight accommodations and ground transportation to and from a hotel when customers are stranded.

The original Ralph Nader lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Central California in 1972 against an airline for bumping him from an overbooked flight.

If enacted, those new rules would provide U.S. passengers with rights and protections more in line with those currently afforded passengers in the European Union and Canada.

As a professor of history who researches American aviation, I’m aware that consumer advocates have pushed for greater passenger rights for airline travelers in the U.S. since at least the early 1970s – when Ralph Nader sued an airline for bumping him from an overbooked flight. For the most part, especially since the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, such efforts have failed, and airlines have been able to set and enforce their own policies.

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 removed most of the economic regulations on commercial airlines in the U.S.

Limits of Rule 240 .

Ralph Nader’s suit, which unsuccessfully sought to end the practice of overbooking flights, highlighted that there were regulations already in place concerning passengers bumped from flights because of overbooking. Those regulations, however, did not cover passengers whose flights were delayed or canceled.

There was, however, something known as Rule 240. As part of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s oversight of U.S. airlines, airlines had to submit information on all aspects of their operations, including their flight delay and cancellation policies. In these required documents, that information was often listed under Rule 240. However, each airline determined its own flight delay and cancellation policies under Rule 240. The airlines were not required to compensate passengers in any particular way, only to state what their policy was.

According to, 23 airlines have signed the airline passenger Bill of Rights.

As U.S. airlines became deregulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many, though not all, included the provisions they had previously submitted to the Civil Aeronautics Board in their contracts of carriage – the "fine print" associated with airline tickets. Many contracts of carriage stated that in the case of a delay or cancellation, the airline would book a passenger on its next available flight or place them on a flight on another airline that would get them to their destination sooner. is a consumer protection organization advocating for the rights of airline travelers.

Rule 240 or its equivalent under the contract of carriage varies by airline and primarily focuses on rebooking passengers. Some airlines do offer meal vouchers and hotel accommodations, but only when the problem is caused by the airline and not something like weather or a labor strike. Consumer advocates encourage passengers to invoke Rule 240, but airlines will likely provide only what is stated in their contract of carriage.

The European Union’s Passenger Rights Regulation allows travelers two forms of compensation in the event of delays or cancelations.

Push for a passenger bill of rights .

In recent decades, consumer advocates and eithicists have sought to reform the system with more unified, consistent protections for passengers, rather than the current airline-by-airline approach.

In response, many action groups like the U.S. Department of Transportation, 23 airlines, and airline customer advocacy groups have created the bill of rights. It includes protections for passengers in cases of severe delays and cancellations, including requiring airlines to provide meals, lodging, and ground transportation when internationally flights are substantially delayed or canceled.

JetBlue is an example of an airline that offers compensation for delays or cancelations.

In 2021, the European Union updated its Passenger Rights Regulation, which allows travelers two forms of compensation in the event of delays or cancelations: for costs incurred up to four hours after the scheduled arrival time; and for non–refundable tickets for delays of more than five hours. Some airlines such as JetBlue offer their own compensation if flights are delayed or canceled.

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