United flight 1069 out of Medford, Ore., on May 24 could have been a flight like any other flight. But while we boarded, a storm sneaked up on us. So the pilot delayed takeoff while ominous gray clouds rolled past, and I did something I'd never done in 25 years of flying.
I read my entire ticket folder.
I'm not sure exactly what provoked this -- I've certainly had time to kill on airplanes before -- but once I'd started, the fine print held my attention all the way through takeoff and those first bumpy minutes aloft. These disclaimers, delivered with subtle variations but the same essential legal intention, are found on the folders of all U.S. air carriers. They tend to support a common theme: Don't expect too much from your airline.
The most frequent fliers know these rules inside out and make a sport of exploiting or defying them. But for less-frequent travelers, it's likely that your airline is imposing more restrictions and taking less responsibility than you think. And with this year's peak travel weeks approaching, now is a good time to remind yourself what you are entitled to as an air traveler, and what you aren't.
Your lost possessions, whatever they are, are worth $1,250 or less: Baggage forever lost is a rarity, especially in domestic travel. Which is a good thing, because the standard provisions for compensation are designed to protect the airline, not the passenger. Domestically, airlines generally pay no more than $1,250 per paying passenger for baggage loss, damage or delay on domestic flights. (On international flights, the limit works out to about $9 per pound, which the Consumer Reports Travel Letter calls "an industry disgrace.")
Also, airlines make a point of taking no responsibility for cameras, electronic equipment, jewelry, cash and various other costly items, whether checked through or carried on. To get more coverage, ask a travel agent about travel insurance.
About that 71-pound suitcase with the matches and pepper spray inside: Most domestic travelers are allowed to check two pieces of baggage, each weighing up to 70 pounds. The combined height, length and thickness of one may be up to 62 inches; the other, 55 inches. (Varying fees are assessed for bags exceeding limits.)
Carry-on packages must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you or into the storage bin overhead, with a general limit on each piece of 45 inches in combined dimensions. (Domestic carriers have a 40-to-50-pound limit.)
Inside your checked baggage (and sometimes your carry-on baggage as well), you are forbidden from packing obviously dangerous objects, such as explosives, but also other objects that might not occur to you: matches, irritating or incapacitating sprays, briefcases with alarms.
What you lose when you're late: If you haven't reported to the gate 10 minutes before a domestic flight's scheduled departure time on most major U.S. carriers (or 30 minutes ahead for most international flights), the airline can cancel your reservation. Similarly, if you haven't checked in 20 or 30 minutes before a domestic flight, the airline can re-assign you to another seat.