You have legal protection against abuses


November 19, 1990|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,Knight-Ridder News Service

The unhappy experience of a group of harried airline travelers a few years ago has led to the creation of a useful videotape about the legal rights of business travelers.

Mark Pestronk, a Washington lawyer specializing in travel-industry law, and Ivan Michael Schaeffer, a lawyer and president of a travel-agency consortium, were traveling together and saw two dozen people get bumped from a flight at an East Coast airport.

The airline that had overbooked did not ask for volunteers to take a later flight in exchange for cash or a free ticket on a future flight, the standard practice most carriers use in such situations, Mr. Schaeffer recalled.

The airline was treating its customers rudely, offering those bumped no compensation or other help, such as rebooking passengers on later flights or on flights of other airlines, he said.

"Mark said to me, 'If these people knew their legal rights, they would never put up with this,' " Mr. Schaeffer said.

Thus was born a cottage industry -- dispensing information on the rights travelers have and how travelers should go about exercising them.

Mr. Pestronk and Mr. Schaeffer first published a small booklet and then made the 35-minute videotape, "Business Travelers' Legal Rights," which they're selling for $29.95. The video contains more information than they could put in the booklet, and in a format that people are more likely to remember, Mr. Schaeffer said.

"Most business travelers are really unaware of what their rights are," he said.

On the tape, Mr. Pestronk and Mr. Schaeffer clearly explain the complex set of federal regulations on what airlines must provide to passengers. Those rights are not widely understood, said Mr. Schaeffer, who heads Travel Trust International, which negotiates group discounts for 115 U.S. and overseas travel agencies.

The buyer of an airline ticket is actually signing a contract that obligates the airline to provide transportation in exchange for the fare. Some of the "Conditions of Contract" are printed on the back of every ticket. But the full set of regulations is generally available only when you ask for it at a ticket counter or other airline office.

Even when a passenger asks, most airline employees aren't trained to know the conditions or prepared to provide a copy of them, Mr. Schaeffer said.

One little-known aspect of the contract is that an airline is not obligated to adhere to its published flight schedule or to the schedule quoted to a passenger by airline employees. That means a traveler has no legal recourse if he or she is inconvenienced or harmed in some way by a late flight, Mr. Schaeffer said.

key point the two lawyers make on the videotape is that a passenger who's bumped off a flight usually does have legal rights. The rights have been established in federal transportation regulations that delineate the compensation an airline has to provide a bumped passenger.

If the airline fails to live up to its part of the bargain, by not offering compensation or by offering what seems like too little, a passenger can sue for damages.

At the same time, the lawyers emphasized, it's probably better for most passengers to take whatever compensation is offered, given the time and expense involved in suing an airline and receiving little or no money a year or more later.

Two other areas in which travelers have rights they may not be aware of are in renting cars and using hotels.

When you rent a car, for instance, the rental company is required to give you a mechanically safe and reliable vehicle. If the car breaks down and you miss an important meeting, you may have grounds to sue the rental company.

Hotels are required to honor reservations made with them or to put you up in another hotel if they don't have a room when you arrive with proof of a valid reservation.

Under a 500-year-old English common-law tradition, too, a hotel guest has the right to sue an innkeeper if the guest is treated in a grossly rude or insulting way in front of others or is thrown out of the hotel in a public way, Mr. Schaeffer said.

One of the most important things for any business traveler to remember, the lawyers said, is that using a credit or charge card for travel expenses can offer the best protection against injustices.

Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, if you have a dispute with a travel-service supplier for any reason, you can report it to the card company and refuse to pay the disputed charge until it's resolved. Usually, the card companies take the consumer's side in the dispute, Mr. Schaeffer said.

The videotape is available by writing Business Travelers' Legal Rights, P.O. Box 30953, Bethesda, Md. 20824, or by calling (800) 926-0616.

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