Air Travelers Likely to Face More Last-Minute CancellationsHoliday air travelers getting ready to head to the airports may want to come prepared for potentially long delays -- either on the tarmac or in the terminal.

Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation fined AMR's (AMR) American Eagle $900,000 for keeping hundreds of passengers stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours one day last May. The airline industry is likely to respond by canceling more flights in order to avoid paying large fines, says Mike Boyd, an airlines analyst and president of Boyd Group International.

There is a silver lining if you do actually board a flight and then get stuck on the tarmac for three hours or more due to the fault of the airlines: compensation for the inconvenience.

The chances of receiving a travel voucher have gone up following the American Eagle fine. "Unless it's an extraordinary situation, the compensation airlines would usually offer was zero. But now, passengers could get something," says Boyd.

What Passengers Get for Their Trouble

Airlines are under no obligation to offer compensation for flight delays, whether they're due to weather, mechanical difficulties, or failing to follow back-up plans.

That said, historically, many companies did at least cough up at least a little something for delays. Over the years, compensation for delays on the tarmac or in the terminal have varied from airline to airline, says Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. Usually, hotel, food, and travel vouchers are given out if it's a mechanical delay that's due to the fault of the airlines, versus bad weather or something outside their control, he said.

However, last year, the Department of Transportation instituted a new tarmac delay rule that prohibits airlines from keeping passengers cooped up on the tarmac for three hours or more without offering them the opportunity to deplane. If the airlines don't comply, they potentially face up to a $27,500-per-passenger fine.

That fine goes to the Department of Transportation and not the passenger, Boyd says.

But with the DOT's $900,000 American Eagle fine, the regulatory agency required $250,000 be applied toward passenger refunds, vouchers, and frequent flier miles to those 608 travelers who were on the 15 delayed flights last May, as well as to future passengers who have a delay of less than three hours on the tarmac, the DOT stated in its announcement. Holiday travelers, hear that? A portion of that $250,000 can be applied toward future American Eagle travelers.

It comes as no surprise that airline companies like JetBlue (JBLU), US Airways (LCC), and Delta Air Lines (DAL) wanted temporary exemptions from the DOT's tarmac delay rule when it first became effective last year, but ultimately the DOT rejected their requests.

It's Probably Better to Get Bumped

While compensation for a delayed flight is a little catch-as-catch-can, a passenger with a reservation who's bumped from a flight is a different matter.

Passengers who arrive at the boarding gate within the deadline set by the airline but are told they were bumped from the flight due to the airline's overbooking are entitled to receive compensation, according to the DOT.

Here's how it breaks out:

  • If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $650 maximum.
  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1,300 maximum).
  • If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flier award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check, or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (i.e., coach, first class) on that flight.
  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.

Staycation, Anyone?

With the Thanksgiving travel season here next week, keep in mind Macsata's word of caution: "Typically, we see an uptick in travel during the winter months. And with the holidays an uptick in volume of passengers," he noted.

That may increase the chance of a bump. And despite a potential of increased compensation for tarmac delays following the American Eagle fine, or a payout from an involuntary bump, most consumers would likely prefer getting to their destination on time during the holidays.

After all, who wants to eat warmed-over turkey?

Motley Fool contributor Dawn Kawamoto does not own any shares in the companies mentioned.

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Every flight I've taken domestically in the past year has been late or canceled. The last flight was late leaving the airport because "We've lost one of our emergency first aid kits." The flight attendants searched the plane, and when they couldn't find it, they announced that they would have to get one from another flight/plane. So, we waited and waited but an extra first aid kit couldn't be found, because then the other plane wouldn't be allowed to take off, etc.

So there was no solution. Finally, we pulled away from the gate anyway and took off. I have no idea if the other first aid kit was ever found, or was ever really lost in the first place.

November 22 2011 at 2:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Roof Family

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is all I can think about while reading this article. It's all fun and games until your rental car (with wood grain siding) catches on fire.

November 22 2011 at 5:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Air travel is simply an expensive way to get from point A to point B...if you're lucky! Airports are now secured animal corrals, and airplanes are cattle cars. No joy in flying any more. Moo! Baa! Cluck, cluck! Neigh! Whinny! Oink!

November 21 2011 at 11:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Would much rather just get ont he plane and get to my destination, no amount of compensation can make up for time with family.

November 21 2011 at 10:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't think congressmen would get bumped but they could suffer from delays. That is why they announced today that the super commitee fails. They had until the 23rd to reach an agreement but they wanted to get out of town tomorrow. There have been older congressmen on TV that have retired. They said congressmen used to live in DC. They went to parties together and their kids went to school together. Their wives knew each other. Now congressmen don't know each other. Today they refer to each other as my friend across the aisle but they are not friends. They have no relationship or commradery. They go home to their state every weekend. Maybe your congressman could work better for you by not going home every week for appearances. They should stay in DC and get to know each other on a personal leve instead of seeing each other as enemiesl.

November 21 2011 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Theo Y.

Why would anyone want to fly onThanksgiving!!

November 21 2011 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not going anywhere

November 21 2011 at 7:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sat 4 hours in Memphis airport, with North West once- Got ZIP! No food, drinks, phone calls, vouchers, etc! Mechanical problems kept their plane from taking off on time, & their people at the counter were rude & unsympathetic. As a matter of fact, WE were told if we didn't like it, Next time fly DELTA- I answered, "Believe me, I will"!

November 21 2011 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nasknit's comment

Guess what...? Northwest is now Delta!

November 21 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

at least they got rid of taking off your smelly shoes in addition to keeping passengers on the tarmac

November 20 2011 at 7:44 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Swelitzkin's comment

We flew in October this year and every passengar had to remove shoes to go through security!

November 21 2011 at 8:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Everyone should boycott the airlines and drive if possible. Only fly when it's the last resort. A traveler has to arrive hours before a flight, be treated like a criminal in security, hope that the flight is on time, and then put up with the crap service from the airlines because the FA's are overworked and underpaid. Oh, don't forget how they nickel and dime you to death for this great service such as early boarding fees, pillow and blanket fees, no food service, etc. Next will be pay toilets.

November 20 2011 at 11:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Larry's comment

I agree! But, will never get everyone to do it together.

November 21 2011 at 7:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sheryl's comment

Sheryl: You and Larry must not travel very often OR you have a Lot of time on your hands to be able to drive where you are going instead of flying. I'd be interested in knowing how you would plan a trip to Europe, or Hawaii, or even to the Caribbean! I know you can cruise to some of those places, but you never really get to enjoy the true ambiance of the locations.
Everyone: have a Happy Thanksgiving!

November 21 2011 at 8:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down