Joe says the biggest travel myth is something called rule 240. The story goes that if your flight is canceled, you can say to a gate agent something along the lines of, "I think rule 240 means I should receive some compensation", and the agent will hand you a voucher for a free meal, free hotel stay, or a seat on the next flight out—on any airline. Rule 240 is supposed to apply to delays and cancellations that are "involuntary," such as mechanical delays—and not to storms, labor strikes, and acts of God.
In fact, there is a whole body of oft-quoted news articles to the effect that, if your flight is canceled, you should negotiate other flights or compensation by mentioning "Rule 240" to an agent. Most prominently, TV journalist Peter Greenberg has made this case in a report on his website, where he writes that there is a Rule 240 and that it promises the following:
In the event of any flight irregularity (delay, cancellation, mechanical failure) for any reason whatsoever except weather, the airline must endorse your ticket over to the next available flight. Not just THEIR next available flight, which may not leave until next Thursday, but THE next available flight.
A recent Google search turned up similar advice all over the Internet, such as in an WJLA-TV report, a blog post at The Consumerist, an article on Aviation.com, and an item in the e-newsletter DailyCandy.
It feels right, too—the airlines ought to have a rule detailing how they will treat their customers when flights are canceled.
But does rule 240 exist in practice? Not really...
Today, airlines are deregulated, and each one spells out what their cancellation and rebooking policies are on their websites, usually under the terms "contracts" or "conditions" of "carriage." You'll seldom find it under "rule 240," but Delta , United , and Northwest** do indeed use the term "rule 240" to spell out their involuntary delay and cancellation policies. But no other airlines use the term rule 240. (If you don't believe me, you can check yourself. I've posted a list the website pages on airline sites with the cancellation policies, below.) And few gate agents with any airline will know what "rule 240" is supposed to mean.
So how was the notion of rule 240 born? It happened more than 30 years ago, when airlines were regulated. Even then, it wasn't a true federal rule. Instead, as the New York Times explained a while ago,
"Rule 240 referred to the section of the airline tariff that explained the airlines’ individual policies on what they would do for passengers during a delay or cancellation. In the regulated era, most airlines agreed to transfer a traveler of a canceled flight to another airline provided it could get the traveler to his or her destination sooner."
Ultimately, saying "rule 240" won't matter to most gate agents. But being polite will. The best strategy when your flight is canceled is to to ask an agent what the airline's policy is, explain your situation, and ask politely to be re-booked on the next flight out of the airport to your destination.
In general, in the case of long, involuntary flight delays, these are the main airline policies:
Alaska, American, Continental, Northwest, United, and US Airways have general policies that say that if they can't rebook delayed passengers on a seat on one of their own flights within a "reasonable amount of time," they will fly the passenger out on the next flight offered by a rival airline. The catch? These airlines only cooperate with select partner airlines. If they don't have an agreement with the other airline offering a flight on your route, you're out of luck.
AirTran, JetBlue, Frontier, Midwest and other small airlines generally have the following policy: Each one pledges only to rebook delayed passengers on another of its own flights. Southwest also follows this guideline.
UPDATE 1/28/2008: On first posting, I failed to include Northwest in this list, for reasons I explain in a comment below. Thanks to reader George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com for catching the error.
Here's a list of airline policies on involuntary delays and cancellations of flights. (In some cases, you may need to download free Adobe Acrobat software to be able to read these contracts.)
Virgin America's Cancellation Rules (For more Virgin America policies, call 877-359-8474.)