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Originally published April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 12, 2008 at 12:57 PM

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How to get ticket refunds and cope with air-travel meltdown

How passengers can protect themselves, rebook flights and get refunds after airlines have stopped flying or declared bankruptcy

Seattle Times Travel staff

Are you stuck with a ticket on an airline that's stopped flying? Or are you one of the hundreds of thousands of travelers who's been stranded by American Airlines' flight cancellations this week? Here's a Q&A with advice on how individual travelers can protect themselves financially, now and in the future.

Q. What are my rights if my flight is canceled?

A. Travelers have limited legal rights in case of delays or cancellations. However, American Airlines, which canceled thousands of flights this week to check wiring on its MD-80 planes after the federal government cracked down on overdue inspections, is going further in an effort to placate its very angry customers.

American is trying to book travelers on other flights, including on competing airlines (there's no longer any federal law compelling them to do that). The flight cancellations are expected to continue through Saturday; travelers can get refunds or credits for future travel or rebook for a later date. Additionally, says American, customers scheduled to travel on any MD-80 flight through April 13, even if their flight hasn't been canceled, may rebook without a change fee to any American Airlines flight with availability in the same cabin as long as their travel begins by April 17. Get the details at www.aa.com

What airlines will provide in case of cancellations, overbooking or other problems is laid out in their contract of carriage. In the old days of paper tickets, that legal document was included with the ticket. Now you'll find it on each airline's Web site. In these days of uncertain flying it's a good idea to print it out and take it with you so you know your rights. To find it, go to the individual airline's Web site and search for "contract of carriage."

Q. Can I get a refund for my ticket if my airline has stopped flying?

A. Aloha, ATA and Skybus airlines all abruptly declared bankruptcy and stopped flying this month; Frontier Airlines this week declared bankruptcy but says it will keep flying. They're the most recent aviation victims of soaring fuel costs and the sagging U.S. economy.

Some other airlines have been honoring Aloha and ATA tickets, taking passengers on their flights or selling them discounted tickets, but it's hit and miss and many U.S. flights already are almost full. And given the chaos when an airline goes under, it's better to get a refund than to rely on getting rebooked on another carrier, especially for flights that are many weeks or months away.

If you paid for a ticket with a credit card, you have some rights to a refund through the federal fair-credit law. If you paid by cash or check, you're most likely out of luck since you will be considered an unsecured creditor and will be very low down in the legal bankruptcy settlement. At best, you might get pennies on the dollar if you paid by cash or check.

Q. How do I get a refund?

If you paid by credit card for a flight on a now-defunct airline, contact your credit-card company immediately and dispute the charge. Consumers who pay by credit card are entitled to refunds under the federal Fair Credit Billing law for goods and services for which they paid and didn't receive.

There are some loopholes in the law that some smaller credit-card companies may use to refuse refunds. For example, the credit-card issuer is supposed to receive the dispute notice no later than 60 days after the date that you received the first monthly statement that listed the charge for the flight. However, major credit-card companies often waive that deadline for future transportation.

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You can get step-by-step details on claiming ticket refunds for Aloha, Skybus and ATA at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/ And get general information on the fair-credit law at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/fcb.shtm. If you didn't pay with a credit card, file a claim with the bankruptcy court; just be ready for the process to take many months and likely yield very little for an individual traveler. Get details at www.uscourts.gov/bankruptcycourts.html. The airlines also have some information on their Web sites.

Q. How can I get another flight?

A. Whenever you fly, and especially in these turbulent times, take the phone number of your airline — and a cellphone — to the airport with you. While you're waiting in the sometimes very long lines at the ticket counter to rebook, you might as well try to call airline reservations office. It could be quicker to rebook by phone.

• Consider buying airline tickets through a travel agent; they then have the responsibility to rebook you. However, some high-volume, online travel agencies have been swamped because of all the cancellations in the past 10 days; a local travel agency where you actually deal with and know a person could be the way to go, particularly for any high-cost air ticket or group travel.

• When you're dealing with airline staff, suppress the urge to scream. It's not the reservationist's fault that air travel is a mess. Asking nicely for help will probably get you farther.

Q. How can I protect myself financially from future bankruptcies?

Always pay for an airline ticket with a credit card. And follow the news so you know what airlines are struggling.

Q. Should I buy a ticket on a carrier that's declared bankruptcy and is still flying?

A. Be cautious since it may be harder to get refunds if a carrier then goes under. Be particularly cautious for flights that are months away. However, if it's an airline you need/want to fly, check out travel insurance if it's a major trip. Be sure to double-check that the insurance policy will cover supplier default; many policies won't even apply to bankrupt airlines. Ask a travel agent or a good resource for comparison-shopping for travel-insurance policies is www.insuremytrip.com

Q. What about overseas carriers? Are some of them in trouble?

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 on Wednesday, leaving thousands of passengers stranded in Hong Kong, London and Vancouver, B.C.

Q. What about my frequent flier miles?

A. If an airline has declared bankruptcy and stopped flying, they've probably vanished into thin air. When airlines merge, however, there usually are mileage deals. If you have a lost or damaged baggage claim with one of the defunct airlines, you'll likely have to chase that in bankruptcy court.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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