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Air Travel Rules: FAQ

Air travel and security in the U.S. has changed through the years. There are several more rules than before, and traveling takes much longer due to security screening.

Knowing about ticketing and security rules can help ease stress while traveling. You should also know your rights as a passenger and consumer.

Several federal agencies play a part in passenger air transportation:

Together, these agencies oversee and regulate various aspects of air travel.

This article answers frequently asked questions about air travel, including flying with a service animal, frequent flyer programs, what to do if bumped from a flight, and more.

Air Travel Rules: Security

Airline security has changed immensely since 9/11. Enhanced passenger screening, carry-on restrictions, and other security measures are in place to prevent threats.

While stricter security measures are more time-consuming than before, they aim to keep air travel safe while balancing efficiency.

What security measures should I expect at the airport?

As of January 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has introduced new security measures at all U.S. airports, emphasizing international flights.

Increased screenings and new screening procedures and methods are key differences. These more thorough security measures can result in longer security lines. To ease this process, keep in mind the following:

  • Arrive at the airport at least 1.5 hours early for domestic flights and at least three hours early for international travel
  • Bring government-issued identification (like a state-issued driver's license or passport)
  • Have your airline ticket (either paper or digital) ready at all times
  • Limit yourself to one carry-on item
  • Don't bring any prohibited items on board (see below)
  • Avoid baggy or loose clothing
  • Wear shoes and headwear that are easy to take off and put back on
  • Don't make jokes about airport or airline security

What types of items are not allowed on airplanes?

You are not allowed to bring certain items on the plane and must check them instead. The TSA breaks down prohibited items from carry-on into several categories:

  • Guns and firearms: You can't carry guns onto a plane — no exceptions. You must check them. You also cannot check certain firearms, so contact the TSA before your trip if you are uncertain.
  • Tools: You can't carry on most tools, like hammers, axes, and drills. The exceptions are tools smaller than seven inches, like a small screwdriver or pair of pliers.
  • Self-defense and martial arts items: You can't carry on any self-defense items.
  • Explosive, flammable, disabling, and dangerous materials or chemicals: You can't carry on any of these items. But, a common lighter is an exception because you can't check it, but you may be able to carry it. Also, you can carry on or check small compressed-gas cartridges (such as for a life vest).
  • Liquids and gels: You can carry liquids and gels in limited amounts. The next section offers more details on the rules for liquids and gels.

What are the 3-1-1 rules for carrying on liquids and gels?

The 3-1-1 rule is the exception to the ban on liquids and gels in the cabin of an airplane. It means you can carry on a liquid or gel if:

  • 3: The liquid or gel comes in a three-ounce or less container. The measurement is the container, not the actual liquid or gel. Technically, the rule is 3.4 ounces (100 ml) or less
  • 1: Your three-ounce or less containers must fit in a one-quart, clear plastic bag
  • 1: You are only allowed one quart-sized, clear plastic bag per passenger

When you go through screening, you must have your bag ready and separate it from your general luggage.

There are some exceptions to the 3-1-1 rule:

You can have these in quantities over three ounces, and do not have to be in plastic bags. But you need to declare these liquids to the security personnel so they can inspect them separately.

I'm traveling with food or gifts. Are there any special rules to follow?

Food and gifts are subject to the same regulations as other items, meaning they must follow the liquid regulations above. Don't wrap the gifts — security officers must unwrap them to inspect them. Wrap your gifts at their destination instead.

You can only carry on foods like jams, jellies, wine, and oils if they meet the 3-1-1 rule. An exception is pies and cakes, which you can bring through a security checkpoint. You must declare them, and they are subject to extra screening. Items purchased at the airport after a security checkpoint (like coffee or baked goods) are also an exception.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has separate rules for alcohol:

  • Beverages with 24% or less alcohol by volume (ABV) are not restricted — this is most beers and wines
  • Beverages with greater than 24% ABV have a limit of five liters (1.3 gallons) per passenger
  • Beverages with an ABV between 25% and 70% have a limit of five liters (1.3 gallons) per passenger

Alcohol products must be unopened and in their original packaging. You can only drink alcohol on board if served by a crew member.

Can I bring my pet through security? What about a service animal or emotional support animal?

Under the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines must recognize dogs as service animals and allow them on U.S. flights. But, they can choose to allow or not allow pets or other species on their flights. Check with your air carrier before your flight if you want to take any animal.

Service animals accompanying passengers with disabilities are generally allowed through security checkpoints. Your service animals' items are also subject to screening, including:

  • Collars
  • Harnesses
  • Leashes
  • Backpacks
  • Vests

Most air service providers do not recognize emotional support animals as service animals. In most cases, emotional support animals have the same rules as pets. Check with your air carrier before you fly.

Can I meet family members at the gate or have them meet me?

No. Only ticket holders with boarding passes can go past the security checkpoint. You must arrange to meet friends and family outside the security checkpoint, like baggage claim or an airline counter. If your family member needs special help, contact the airline.

Air Travel Rules: Flight Changes

Flight delays and cancellations are an inevitable aspect of air travel. Adverse weather, air traffic control, and airplane mechanical issues can all cause delayed and canceled flights. You should know your rights in case of a change in your flight schedule.

The airline has delayed or canceled my flight; what can I do?

There is little or no federal regulation mandating what an air carrier must do or offer if your flight gets canceled or delayed. Before 1978, "Rule 240" mandated how airlines must handle cancellations and delays. Due to the airline industry's deregulation, this rule is no longer effective. But, many airlines still act according to it.

Today, each airline sets its own policies for delays and cancellations. Research the policies of the airline you want to choose and see if they meet your expectations. Although not required by law, here are some general guidelines:

  • Cancellations: If the airline cancels your flight, most airlines will rebook you on the first available flight to your destination at no charge.
  • Delays: If the airline delays your flight, you can book a flight on another airline but may face cancelation charges from your original airline. Some airlines waive this fee or only waive it if the delay is of a certain kind (like a mechanical failure). Ask your original airline if it will endorse your ticket to the other carrier.

Typically, budget airlines offer fewer options and amenities than more full-service airlines. This can include compensating you for meals, a hotel room, and other expenses related to delays or cancellations.

The airline stranded my flight on the runway for hours. What are my rights?

New rules that came into effect in 2010 impose a heavy fine (up to $27,500 per passenger) on airlines that strand their passengers on the runway for more than three hours. The rule requires airlines to allow air passengers to deplane domestic flights on the runway for more than three hours if doing so doesn't jeopardize passenger or airport safety.

Also, carriers must give passengers food and water within the first two hours of being on the runway and let them use the bathroom.

The airline overbooked seats and bumped me; what are my rights?

Sometimes, airlines intentionally overbook flights to compensate for no-shows. Most of the time, the airline correctly predicts no-shows, and there aren't any issues. If they are incorrect, the airline must "bump" some passengers.

Unlike general cancellations and delays, there is federal regulation against airlines bumping passengers due to overbooking. This is sometimes called "involuntary denied boarding."

The airline will first ask for volunteers and offer "denied boarding compensation." If not enough passengers volunteer and you are involuntarily bumped, the airline must find you another flight with these rules:

  • One hour late: No compensation is due if the airline can arrange to get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time.
  • 1-2 hours late: If the airline gets you to your destination within one to two hours of your original arrival time (1-4 for international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum.
  • 2+ hours late: If the airline takes more than two hours (four for international flights) to get you to your destination, then the airline must pay you double your one-way fare, with an $800 maximum.
  • Make your own arrangements: Or, you can make your own arrangements and request a reimbursement for the flight.

The airline can choose who gets bumped based on frequent flyer status, check-in time, or other non-discriminatory factors.

What can I do if my baggage gets lost or damaged?

Dealing with lost or damaged luggage is a major inconvenience. There are few rules, and it is up to the airlines to set their own policies.

Most airlines limit the amount they are liable for your lost or damaged luggage to around $2,500 per passenger. You can declare a higher value at check-in, but they will charge you an extra fee based on the value.

International flights are also subject to airline policies. Although some international laws exist, the compensation is often insignificant and based on the weight of your luggage rather than the actual value. Check your airline's policies for lost or damaged luggage, and never pack anything extremely valuable or irreplaceable. Consider shipping and insuring those items instead.

You can report or submit a lost or stolen luggage claim through the TSA.

Air Travel Rules: Tickets

Understanding the rules on ticket purchases, changes, and fees is key for a smooth travel experience.

The DOT requires airlines to provide a few disclosures about their ticket prices and airfare:

  • The full price of the airfare (including all taxes, fees, and surcharges) must be on the airline's official website, advertising, and e-ticket confirmation.
  • All fees for optional services must be on the airline's website homepage.
  • E-ticket confirmations must include information about free baggage allowance and fees for the first and second checked bags and carry-ons.

Learn more about your consumer rights on the Aviation Consumer Protection section of the DOT website.

How are e-tickets different than paper tickets?

E-tickets can mean one of two things. Some people refer to e-tickets as the receipt from an airline that includes an airline or reservation code. This is not a formal ticket but a reservation, proof of reservation, or receipt.

You can't use this to get through a security checkpoint or to board a plane. Instead, you present this to a check-in agent or at an electronic kiosk at the airport to generate an actual boarding pass.

Most airlines offer mobile check-in for your flight and an e-boarding pass. This is different from your flight purchase receipt and confirmation number. In most cases, you can only access the e-boarding pass once you check in for your fight (usually 24 hours before departure).

Most airlines allow you to print your boarding pass from your home printer. This printed boarding pass is an actual ticket, just like one your airline would print out for you at the airport. It typically has a barcode or similar code and counts as a boarding pass.

If you are unsure, check with your airline. Don't assume what you have will get you through security.

Can I give or sell my ticket to someone else?

No. For security reasons, only the passenger whose name is on the ticket can use it. This means you can't give your ticket to someone else to use. You might "refund" the ticket in part or in whole and secure a new ticket for someone else, but you can't simply give them your ticket.

I have to travel at the last minute because of a death or serious illness. Are there discounts available?

Many airlines offer bereavement discounts if you travel without much advance planning due to a serious illness or funeral. Airlines will also often waive cancellation fees for losing a family member or serious illness.

It always pays to contact your airline to find out what it offers in this situation and what proof it may need.

Air Travel Rules: Frequent Flyer Miles

Frequent flyer programs can be a valuable way to earn rewards and flight vouchers, but exercise caution. Some programs tie rewards to credit card usage, and it's important to know fees, interest rates, and terms associated with these cards.

It varies by program, but awards typically include free or discounted airfare, upgrades, priority seating, and food and beverage deals.

Are my frequent flyer points legally protected, or can an airline take them away?

Frequent flyer programs are a contract between you and the airline, subject to the same rules as any contract. But, the airline often dictates the terms, and you can either agree to sign up or not. This also means the airline will usually state in the fine print that it can change the program's rules at almost any time, with or without notice.

Because of this, think of frequent flyer programs as a bonus rather than an obligation. Here are some things to look out for:

  • The airline can raise the miles required for particular awards, forcing you to use your old mileage under more restrictive new rules.
  • The airline may end service on a route you frequented or even stop serving the city where you live.
  • The airline may drop attractive frequent-flyer tie-ins with particular airlines or hotel chains.
  • The airline may change the number and length of any "blackout periods" during which you can't use awards. For example, the Thanksgiving blackout may last a week or more on some carriers.
  • Airlines often limit the number of seats on each flight for frequent flyer redemptions. You may struggle to get reservations on your preferred dates or flights.

Can I belong to more than one frequent flyer program?

Absolutely. This is an excellent way to avoid scheduling inconvenient flights to use or earn frequent flyer rewards. But, spreading your air travel across many programs may reduce your ability to build up enough miles to redeem awards.

For this reason, it is often best to belong to two frequent flyer programs and no more than three.

Can I sell or give my frequent flyer points to someone else?

This is up to the airline. Many airlines allow you to name close family and relatives as beneficiaries of your frequent flyer miles. But, most airlines will not allow you to sell your miles and may ban you from the frequent traveler program if they discover you are selling your miles.

Issues With an Airline? Talk to an Attorney

Hopefully, any air travel issues you experience never need help from an attorney. But there are situations where you need legal help. Consumer protection laws cover certain aspects of air transportation — including refund issues, flight overbooking, or lost or stolen baggage.

If you're going up against an airline and its legal resources, you'll want an experienced attorney. An attorney can review the circumstances of your situation and determine if you have a claim. Contact a consumer protection attorney today to learn more.

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