Thousands of holiday travelers were stranded in late December amid a wave of canceled flights, the majority of which were on Southwest Airlines.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has since pushed Southwest to provide “adequate compensation” to its passengers, including for missed flights, hotels and meals due to the cancellations.
This has left many people online wondering what they are entitled to if their flight is canceled. One person claimed in a tweet on Dec. 27 that Southwest is required by law to provide hotel and meal vouchers.
Are airlines required by law to pay for hotels and meals when your flight is canceled?
- U.S. Department of Transportation
- Peter Greenberg, travel editor for CBS News
- Customer service plans and contracts of carriage for major U.S. airlines
No, airlines are not required by law to pay for hotels and meals when your flight is canceled, but many airlines have policies to do so under certain circumstances.
WHAT WE FOUND
Airlines are regulated by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT). There isn’t a federal law requiring airlines to cover the cost of your hotel and meals in the event of a flight cancellation, CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg told VERIFY.
The DOT also says on its website that “airlines are not required to provide passengers with money or other compensation for costs that fall outside of the canceled airline ticket and fees tied directly to the airline ticket (such as baggage fees, seat upgrades, etc.) when flights are canceled.”
However, some airlines will pay for your hotel, provide reimbursement, or offer hotel and meal vouchers.
Individual airlines have their own policies outlining what they will do in the event of a canceled flight, including whether they will cover the cost of hotels and meals. The DOT recommends asking staff members if the airline will pay for meals or a hotel room, but notes that some airlines “do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers.”
Many airlines say in their customer service plans or contracts of carriage, which is the legal agreement between an airline and its passengers, that they will pay for hotels through vouchers, reimbursement or by other means.
Airlines typically provide these amenities if the flight cancellation is within their control.
This could refer to situations where the airline didn’t have enough crew members to operate the flight, the plane experienced a mechanical failure or did not show up at all, or there were technology issues, according to Greenberg.
“If there’s a weather situation, that gets them off the hook,” Greenberg said.
Here’s a breakdown of hotel and meal reimbursement policies for major U.S. airlines, including Southwest.
Southwest passengers impacted by a flight cancellation or significant delay between Dec. 24, 2022 and Jan. 2, 2023 can “submit receipts for consideration” if they have incurred additional expenses for a hotel, food and more. Receipts can be sent via email or Southwest’s website.
“We will honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for meals, hotel, and alternate transportation,” the airline says on its website.
The commitment to provide lodging in the event of a delay or cancellation that is within the airline’s control is also included in Southwest’s customer service plan.
If a hotel doesn’t provide a shuttle service, Southwest says it will offer a voucher or honor reasonable requests for reimbursement for transportation.
The airline also says in its customer service plan that it will provide meal vouchers during flight delays or cancellations within its control that result in a wait time of at least three hours. If vouchers or participating vendors aren’t available, Southwest says it will honor reasonable requests for meal reimbursement.
If your Delta flight is canceled or delayed for more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the airline will provide you with a voucher for one night at a hotel “if overnight accommodations are available at Delta contracted facilities,” according to its contract of carriage.
Delta will also provide free transportation if the hotel does not offer it.
If hotel accommodations are not available, Delta says it will provide you with a travel voucher equal in value to the contracted hotel rate, up to $100.
However, Delta says it will not be liable for your expenses if the flight cancellation was due to “force majeure,” which the airline defines as:
- Weather conditions or acts of God;
- Riots, civil unrest, embargoes, war, hostilities, or unsettled international conditions;
- Strikes, work stoppages, slowdowns, lockout, or any other labor-related dispute;
- Government regulation, demand, directive or requirement;
- Shortages of labor, fuel, or facilities; or
- Any other condition beyond Delta’s control or any fact not reasonably foreseen by Delta
United Airlines says in its contract of carriage that it will also provide one night’s lodging, or reimbursement in the form of an electronic travel certificate, if a flight is delayed or canceled for more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The airline also says it will provide snacks and/or food and beverage vouchers in the event of a significant delay caused by United.
American Airlines will arrange an overnight stay or cover the cost of an approved hotel, if one is available, if your flight is delayed or diverted to another city and does not board before 11:59 p.m. on your scheduled arrival day.
“We don’t guarantee reimbursement for hotel expenses if you book directly without written authorization from American Airlines,” the airline’s contract of carriage says.
If the delay is beyond the airline’s control, American says passengers must pay for a hotel, meals and other expenses.
The airline defines events beyond its control as:
- Meteorological or weather conditions
- Civil disturbances including war, embargoes or unsettled international conditions (real or threatened)
- Acts of terror
- Public health emergencies of domestic or international concern
- Labor disputes that involve or affect our service
- Government regulations or requirements
- Shortage of labor, fuel or facilities of American or others
- Any fact not reasonably foreseen or predicted by American
If your Alaska flight is canceled in a city that’s at least 100 miles away from your home, the airline will provide one night’s hotel accommodations if they are available and transportation to the hotel, according to its contract of carriage.
If hotel accommodations aren’t provided, you can also request reimbursement for a one-night stay in the form of an electronic certificate for future Alaska travel.
These accommodations will only be provided when the delay is expected to be more than four hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., the airline says.
Alaska says it will not be liable “for any failure or delay in operating any flight, with or without notice, for reasons of safety or when advisable, in its sole discretion, due to Force Majeure Events or any event not reasonably foreseen, anticipated or predicted by Alaska.”
Spirit Airlines says in its contract of carriage that it “assumes no responsibility for personal or business expenses incurred by a guest as a result of a flight delay cancellation, or schedule change.”
But the airline does say it will provide overnight accommodations or reimburse you for the reasonable cost of accommodations “in the event of a controllable cancellation or an extended controllable delay departing after the scheduled departure day.”
For delays of more than three hours or a cancellation that’s within the airline’s control, Spirit says it will also provide a meal voucher redeemable anywhere that will accept it.
“However, if the cancellation or misconnection is caused by severe weather, Air Traffic Control decisions or other issues or causes outside of Spirit’s control, we do not offer such accommodations,” the airline says.