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Sunday, April 20, 2008 - Page updated at 08:02 AM

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Feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants? Sit back and relax with these tips

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PAUL BEATY / AP

Passengers wait in line at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago this month during a period in which American Airlines canceled some 3,000 flights.

The recent stranding of tens of thousands of American Airlines passengers again raises a crucial question: Since the problem was caused by the airline canceling hundreds of flights as it scrambled to do safety checks, what are passengers owed?

Not much.

Federal rules state that passengers are entitled to refunds if flight schedules change "substantially." Other than that vague rule, an airline owes you only what it promises in its contract of carriage (found on airlines' Web sites, or ask at ticket counters).

American's contract states: "American will endeavor to carry you and your baggage with reasonable dispatch, but times shown in timetables or elsewhere are not guaranteed. ... American is not responsible for or liable for failure to make connections, or to operate any flight according to schedule, or for a change to the schedule of any flight. Under no circumstances shall American be liable for any special, incidental or consequential damages arising from the foregoing."

On its Web site (www.aa.com) last week, American said that customers stuck overnight because of flight cancellations may e-mail the airline's customer relations to request information about compensation.

American did buy hotel rooms for thousands of customers left stranded away from home by the grounding of its MD-80 fleet for government-mandated wiring inspections, and the carrier also said it will send customers who had to spend the night somewhere an extra $500 voucher good for future travel.

While airlines aren't required to offer stranded fliers vouchers, many do so as a goodwill gesture. But even if no offer is forthcoming, savvy travelers can sometimes snare them if they simply ask. Nor are airlines with delayed or canceled flights required to book you on other carriers. If they do put you on another airline, "the vast majority of passengers — those on restricted discounted tickets — will be forced to pay any price difference in the tickets," said Anne Banas of SmarterTravel.com.

Vanishing airlines

The recent dominolike collapse of Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus has frazzled the already-jangled nerves of airline passengers. Soaring fuel costs, which contributed to the demise of the three carriers at the end of March and in early April, are putting pressure on all that remain. (Frontier Airlines also declared bankruptcy this month but said it will keep flying while it regroups financially.)

However, it's unlikely a major U.S. carrier would suddenly cease: Companies with hundreds of millions in assets don't suddenly pack up and turn off the lights. They do, however, "have to get a handle on fuel costs, either by raising fares or cutting services," says airline expert Jerry Chandler, who writes an airline column for Cheapflights.com, a discount ticket site. So far, the airlines have responded to fuel costs by tacking on fuel surcharges, raising fees and some fares, and packing planes fuller.

Protect yourself with credit card, insurance

While the big airlines are more likely to merge than go under, small airlines and other travel providers are at risk of a sudden demise, as this month's collapse of smaller airlines showed.

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A critical countermove for travelers: Always pay by credit card so you can apply for a refund under federal fair-credit laws.

You can also buy travel insurance to cover defaults, but be careful. Some advice from John W. Cook of www.quotewright.com, a travel-insurance comparison site:

• Buy from an independent source. Policies sold by tour operators, cruise lines and airlines often don't cover their own default.

• Make sure the policy covers your travel provider. One major company, Access America, lists companies it will cover if they suddenly default. Travel Guard and Travelex list troubled companies they will not cover.

• Know that default protection must be purchased within a given period after an initial trip deposit, generally 10 to 21 days.

For those already caught in the recent defaults: Southwest will rebook at no charge or offer a refund to ATA passengers who were flying as part of a Southwest codeshare. Passengers flying on a United codeshare ticket with Aloha will be accommodated without charge on a space-available basis, and United offered discounted one-way fares for Aloha passengers to get home. Skybus passengers who didn't pay by credit card just seem to be out of luck.

Troubled airlines overseas

Given the soaring cost of fuel, many airlines, not just U.S. ones, are in economic trouble. Alitalia, Italy's major carrier, is in bad shape, and the Hong Kong-based budget airline Oasis stopped flying earlier this month, leaving thousands of passengers stranded in Hong Kong, London and Vancouver, B.C. Travelers should beware of booking many months out on smaller, shakier airlines.

Mergers and higher fares

Delta and Northwest are merging, hoping to benefit from economies of scale as they create the world's largest airline.

But for passengers, airline mergers, combined with the recent spate of airline bankruptcies, may mean travelers in many cities can expect fewer flights to choose from, and they'll be packed even fuller than they are now. And greater demand for remaining seats translates into higher ticket prices.

"There's no doubt in my mind fares are going to go up," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com, which tracks changes in airline ticket prices. "Consumers are deluding themselves if they think that's not the case."

Peter Schiff, president of brokerage firm Euro Pacific Capital, said the changes could put air travel out of reach for Americans of modest means. "Although many Americans have come to regard affordable air travel as a birthright, from a global perspective it remains the province of the wealthy," Schiff said.

Frequent-flier miles

If an airline has declared bankruptcy and stopped flying, your frequent-flier miles probably have vanished into thin air. When airlines merge, however, deals are usually worked out on mileage.

Northwest and Delta airlines are expected to combine the mileage accounts of customers. However, there may be changes in minimum mileage needed for awards, and Delta's frequent-flier program likely will dominate since it's the acquiring airline. However, both airlines already are members of the Sky Team airline alliance, making the mileage merger simpler.

Fly defensively

The hassles of air travel will only get worse as the busy summer-travel season approaches. Some strategies for coping if airlines suddenly cancel more flights:

• Limit luggage to one carry-on bag, advises Susan Foster of SmartPacking.com. That way, your "rebooking options are completely open," she said.

• Know what other airlines have flights to your destination about the same time. Take airline phones numbers with you so you can rebook yourself. That can be faster than rebooking at the airport, where ticket-counter lines may be long.

Service keeps getting worse

Airline service has been on the decline for years, so it's no surprise that statistics show it was worse in 2007 than in 2006. The new 2008 Airline Quality Rating report shows:

• Complaints to the Department of Transportation increased by about 60 percent.

• The rate of complaints increased from 0.88 per 100,000 passengers to 1.42 per 100,000 passengers.

• The airlines are also mishandling more baggage than ever: 7.01 passengers per 1,000 walk away from carousels without their bags, up from 6.5. Not good, but chances are you'll travel with your bags — unless you're flying British Airways into the troubled Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow airport.

• On-time performance, another criterion in the study, dropped from 75.5 percent in 2006 to 73 percent in 2007. (You can check a flight's on-time record at www.flightstats.com before buying a ticket.)

The Airline Quality Rating is written annually by industry experts at the University of Nebraska and Wichita State University: see www.aqr.aero.

Some good news on bumping

Passengers who get bumped off overbooked flights will be able to get double the compensation under a new Transportation Department rule.

If bumped passengers are put on a flight that takes them to their destination more than two hours after their original arrival time, they'll be eligible to receive the full price of their fare, up to $800.

The new rule, expected to go into effect next month, applies to most planes carrying more than 30 passengers. The previous $400 limit (and a lesser $200 compensation rule) had not changed since 1978.

Material from Kristin Jackson of the Seattle Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal is included in this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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