A few years ago, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, I noticed something strange on the departure boards. American Airlines had three flights scheduled that afternoon from ORD to Boston, and all were apparently operating on time. United, on the other hand, had three flights scheduled from ORD to Boston, but none were operating on time. In fact, all three United flights showed "canceled."
I smelled a rat. I went to the United counter and asked the reason for the cancellations. "Weather."
Weather? The airlines couldn't have it both ways. Either American Airlines pilots were irresponsible, crazy air jockeys who were going to tease the gods and fly into the face of serious storms, or United's official cancellation reason was a convenient untruth.
I checked the weather in both Chicago and Boston: totally clear.
I went back out to the United gates and informed the counter agents that I knew the weather was fine and also explained that all the American flights were operating without problem. And then I invoked Rule 240 — which states that in the event of any flight delay or cancellation caused by anything other than weather, the airline would fly me on the next available flight — not their next available flight, which might not leave for another 24 hours.
And guess what happened? A lot of United passengers made it to Boston that day — on American.
Then, a year later, I was scheduled to fly on Delta from Pensacola to Miami. When I got to the counter, the agent told me the flight was canceled. She volunteered nothing else. So I calmly suggested that she invoke Rule 240. Once she knew that I knew the rule — and only then — did she rewrite my ticket, and those of the passengers in line behind me, and we got to Miami that day on an unusual routing: Pensacola to New Orleans and then on to Miami. Rule 240 allowed me to get to where I needed to go.
I've written about Rule 240 for years. And yet, every time I tell people about it, there are those who claim that my information is either out of date or plain wrong. That's led to more confusion, and in at least one case a writer argued that I had simply fabricated Rule 240 out of thin air.
Well, I didn't make up Rule 240. It was created by the old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) way before the days of airline deregulation. And the rule clearly stated what an airline's responsibilities were to passengers in the event of a flight cancellation or delay.
Rule 240 mandated that an airline facing a delayed or canceled flight had to transfer you to another carrier if 1) the second carrier could get you to your destination more quickly than the original line and 2) it had available seats. In pre-deregulation days, all the big U.S. airlines adhered to this practice.
In the days of regulation, the U.S. government required all airlines to submit tariffs containing fares, fare conditions, baggage rules, and what this meant is that the airlines also had to submit details about what they would and would not do in a wide range of circumstances. Those tariffs, in effect, constituted the contract between airlines and travelers. And in an interesting semantic approach, the tariff paragraphs were described as "rules."
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Nigella Lawson testifies, parents talk teens
1. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson admitted in court Wednesday to using cocaine multiple times in her life, but called claim...
- Behold! Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lights up the night
- 'Tips for Jesus' spreads the wealth in massive restaurant tips
- Down, Sunny! First dog knocks 2-year-old over at White House
- Lawrence, 'Hustle' earn NY Critics awards
- TODAY's Takeaway: Nigella Lawson testifies, parents talk teens
In its day, paragraph 240 was perhaps the most pro-passenger rule ever enacted to protect air travelers. And then, when the CAB was deregulated out of existence in 1978, the rule survived the transition. Flight delayed or canceled? An airline counter or gate agent could easily invoke Rule 240 to endorse your ticket over to another carrier. In colloquial airline usage, the rule soon became a verb, as in ... "Hey, could you '240' me?" Airlines would ... and did just that.
Of course, in today's deregulated environment, when airlines no longer have to post tariffs, the argument can be made that Rule 240 therefore no longer exists. Officially, that's true, but in practice a majority of airlines still honor the old rules, 240 among them. The newer carriers — those that do not have interline agreements with the major legacy airlines, like JetBlue, Southwest and Air Tran, never had Rule 240 to deal with, and thus don't, as a matter of company policy, endorse tickets over to other carriers (although JetBlue has been known to outright buy tickets on other carriers to accommodate some of its passengers).
In the past few years, just about every cash-strapped airline has amended its "contract of carriage" to try to change the definition of Rule 240. Still, in practice, airlines continue to reluctantly use it — to our advantage — every day. They reluctantly use it because of financial realities — to endorse a ticket over to another carrier also means the airline loses that revenue.
It's really an issue of semantics and interpretation. I'm here to tell you Rule 240 does exist. In fact, in the last few weeks, I've used the rule twice when flights were delayed — and it worked like a charm. But more on that later.
On the official level, this is what airlines now say they will do in the event of a delay or cancellation:
United Airlines changed its language to say that in the event of a delay or cancellation, it would still fly you on a competitor, but not necessarily in the same class of service as on your original United flight. Delta still has a Rule 240 in its contract of carriage, but conveniently omits the section in which it used to say it wold fly you on another carrier in the event of a "flight irregularity." American only promises to get you out on one of its own flights. Alaska and Northwest airlines have stayed with most of the original paragraph 240 language.
So, the real bottom line here is that while no one airline is legally mandated to follow Rule 240, many of them do — if they want to. And the real key is that you have to ask — not demand — and in many cases, you'll be accommodated.
Having said all this, is Rule 240 a myth? An urban legend? Hardly. A month ago, I was trying to fly from St. Thomas to New York en route to Los Angeles. The originating flight was running about three hours late, which meant I would miss my connection in New York. I asked the airline — in this case, American — to "240" me. And without hesitation, the agent did just that — routing me from St. Thomas to San Juan and then on the airline's nonstop flight to Los Angeles. Piece of cake.
And as recently as three days ago, I was trying to get to Denver from the East Coast. After checking in for my United flight, I watched both the departure and arrival boards with growing concern. The aircraft taking me to Denver was actually coming from Denver, and while the departure board showed an on-time departure for Denver, the arrivals board told a different story — at least a two-and-a-half-hour delay. I asked the United agent for the real story on the incoming aircraft. He told me that the plane had left the gate at Denver, but then turned around and went back to the gate. "Seems there's a mechanical," he said. I quickly looked up at the departure board and noticed that Frontier had a flight leaving for Denver in 20 minutes. I hadn't checked any bags. I asked if he could "240" me over to the Frontier flight, and within about two minutes he handed me an e-ticket receipt and told me to race to the Frontier gate, where the counter agent honored the ticket and off I went.
So, for those of you who insist that 240 doesn't exist, I have to differ. It does exist, it does get implemented. Maybe not always in a friendly manner, maybe not always volunteered by the offending airline — but that's not the point. Gate and counter agents still have the discretion — and more often than not, the power — to invoke Rule 240 and help passengers when a flight is delayed or canceled by anything other than weather. The only real change? You can't demand to invoke Rule 240 because it's no longer a rule. But you can ask. And people do that successfully every day. So perhaps the most important rule to remember here about 240: If you don't ask, you don't get ....
Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints