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Airline Ticket Contract Terms

The following information has been provided to you in order to make some sense of your airline ticket contract. Many of us have never even looked at it, let alone know what type of information it provides. It is important to realize, however, that each airline has specific rules that make up your contract of carriage. These rules may differ among carriers. They include provisions such as check-in deadlines, refund procedures, responsibility for delayed flights, and many other things.

The back of all standard airline tickets has at least 11 paragraphs of fine print under the heading "Conditions of Contract." In Paragraph 3 you'll find a statement that various "applicable tariffs" and the "Carrier's Conditions of Carriage and Related Regulations" are incorporated into the contract. This means that each airline has filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation a series of statements about its obligations to its passengers and its limitations of liability. These tariffs and conditions are the terms of your contract with the airline.

The Conditions of Carriage cover everything from the number of bags you can check to the type of compensation you receive if your flight is delayed or canceled. Boarding priority, check-in requirements and most of the other fine-print terms that describe an airline's rights and responsibilities to its passengers are set forth in the Conditions of Carriage.

Conditions of Carriage vary from airline to airline. Although most airline tickets look identical, the subtle differences in the hidden terms can make a substantial difference in your rights as a passenger. You can obtain a summary of the hidden terms and conditions of most major airlines' contracts by requesting a copy of United States Air Carriers, Conditions of Contract, Summary of Incorporated Terms (Domestic Air Transportation) from the Air Transport Association, 1709 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20006; (800) 497-3326 (A fee is required for this and at the time if this writing it was $55. Check with ATA for current price.) In addition, your travel agent might have a copy.

Domestic Travel

For domestic travel, an airline may provide all of its contract terms on or with your ticket at the time you buy it. Many small "commuter" carriers use this system. Other airlines may elect to "incorporate terms by reference." This means that you are not given all the airline's rules with your ticket-most of them are contained in a separate document which you can inspect on request. If an airline elects to "incorporate by reference" it must provide conspicuous written notice with each ticket that: 1) it incorporates terms by reference, and 2) these terms may include liability limitations, claim-filing deadlines, check-in deadlines, and certain other key terms.

The airline must also:

  • Ensure that passengers can receive an explanation of key terms identified on the ticket from any location where the carrier's tickets are sold, including travel agencies;
  • Make available for inspection the full text of its contract of carriage at each of its own airport and city ticket offices;
  • Mail a free copy of the full text of its contract of carriage upon request.

There are additional notice requirements for contract terms that affect your air fare. Airlines must provide a conspicuous written notice on or with the ticket concerning any "incorporated" contract terms that:

  • Restrict refunds;
  • Impose monetary penalties; or
  • Permit the airline to raise the price after you've bought the ticket.

If an airline incorporates contract terms by reference and fails to provide the required notice about a particular rule, the passenger will not be bound by that rule.

International Travel

Not all of the detailed requirements for disclosing domestic contract terms apply to international travel. Airlines file "tariff rules" with the government for this transportation. Passengers are generally bound by these rules whether or not they receive actual notice about them. Every international airline must keep a copy of its tariff rules at its airport and city ticket offices. You have a right to examine these rules. The airline agents must answer your questions about information in the tariff, and they must help you locate specific tariff rules, if necessary. If the airline keeps its tariff in a computer rather than on paper, there are additional disclosure requirements which are similar to those for domestic contract terms. The most important point to remember, whether your travel is domestic or international, is that you should not be afraid to ask questions about a carrier's rules. You have a right to know the terms of your contract of carriage. It is in your best interest, as well as that of the airline, for you to ask in advance about any matters of uncertainty.

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