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You had the flight from hell over the holidays. Now what?




Passengers wait in line at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday. A major snowstorm has delayed flights from Atlanta to New York.
Passengers wait in line at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday. A major snowstorm has delayed flights from Atlanta to New York.
David Tulis/AP

Tis the season for air travel, and over the coming weeks millions will take to the skies to see their loved ones. 

But sometimes, that journey becomes the trip from hell. 

So if your flight is delayed because of snow,  or you're bumped when the plane is overbooked, or you make it to your destination but your luggage doesn't, do YOU know what you're entitled to from the airlines?

Barbara Peterson, senior aviation correspondent for Conde Nast Traveler, has some advice.

Let's say my flight is delayed for any reason. Can I get something in return for the inconvenience?

Legally, they don't owe you anything because most delays are out of their control caused by weather, an air traffic control or anything like that. But you can ask the airline, especially if it's a long delay, if they can give you money for food or maybe put you up in a hotel if that's necessary. 

Does the answer change if I'm flying domestic versus internationally?

Actually, if you're flying from an international destination -- namely Europe back to the United States -- then you would have a completely different scenario because their consumer protection rules are much stronger. If you are delayed more than just a few hours, you are automatically entitled to compensation.

What benefits are there if the plane's delayed because of something within the airline's control, like mechanical repairs?

That still doesn't get you anything, and the reason is actually a fairly good one, I think, which is it has to do with safety. The airlines have successfully argued, really, we have to put safety first and if we're worried about paying a lot of compensation because we're trying to fix something, that's going to add another element in there which we really don't want to have to be considering at a time like that.

Getting bumped from a flight because it's overbooked can happen, too. What are the rules here?

They definitely owe you something. You are entitled up to $1,300 in addition to your fare depending how long it takes them to get you to your destination.

What if my bag is lost or delayed? There are already a lot of fees to get them on the flight in the first place, so if my luggage isn't with me do I get my money back?

If your bag is declared lost, then, yes, they will refund that fee that they charged you but in addition they do owe you up to $3,300. However, if it's delayed by just a day or two, they don't owe you that fee back. They don't really owe you anything. Most airlines will give you pocket money to get a few essential items, however, you're really not going to get any satisfaction if you want that fee back.

Is it worth buying travel insurance, too, just to make sure I'm not out of money when something happens?

I think increasingly people are looking at that as a very good option. Anything can go wrong. There's a couple of new options out there that are really reasonably priced. There's one for $25 that will cover you for all manner of situations and you don't have to wait to be stuck on the tarmac for three hours to get some sort of compensation.

Let's say one of these things happen to me, but I don't remember what I'm entitled to at the time. Can I go back to the airline and get compensation in the end?

You might be able to, but you would probably have to file a complaint first. The Department of Transportation has kept a whole log of complains on exactly that because what they've found is that a lot of people working the airlines' counters at the airport may not fully be aware of what the rules are, or maybe they've just been encouraged to give low-ball offers. If you realize later that perhaps you were given short shrift, you should go to the Department of Transportation, file a complaint, and go back to the airline. In a number of cases that has been successful.