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Charter Flights

When passengers travel on an airplane, they usually take a scheduled flight.  Scheduled flights operate according to pre-published schedules for departures and arrivals from one destination to another.  However, another option for travel is a charter flight, which is different from a scheduled flight. 

A charter flight is a flight that is not part of an airline’s published schedule.  For example, an airline will not post on its website that the airline will operate a flight from Point A to Point B at 3pm every Wednesday.  Instead, charter flights are typically operated for specific unscheduled itineraries. There are many different types of charter flights, including:

Traveling with a Disability on a Charter Flight

  • Airlines operating charter flights (direct air carriers) are required to comply with the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the Department of Transportation’s disability regulations.   The ACAA is a law that makes it unlawful to discriminate against air travelers because they have a disability.  DOT is responsible for enforcing the ACAA and its implementing regulations, which applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States. 
  • Companies that sell tickets on public charter flights but do not operate the flights are known as public charter operators.  Public charter operators must accommodate passengers with disabilities if they provide facilities or services that would have been provided by a direct air carrier. 
    • For example, ABC Airlines uses its aircraft and crew to operate a flight for Tropical Vacations (the public charter operator).  Tropical Vacations sells seats on the flight to members of the public.  In this case, Tropical Vacations must comply with DOT’s rule implementing the ACAA if Tropical Vacations provides check-in service, gate agents, wheelchair service, or other air transportation-related services at the airport as these are the services that typically would have been provided by the direct air carrier.
  • For more information about the ACAA or traveling with a disability, please visit our Traveling with a Disability webpage.

Baggage Liability on a Charter Flight

  • DOT’s domestic baggage liability rules apply to all domestic charter flights, regardless of their type, that are operated on an aircraft designed to hold more than 60 seats.
  • The domestic baggage liability requirements for public charter flights are the same as the requirements that apply to scheduled flights.   For more information on these requirements, please visit our Baggage Liability webpage.
  • Additionally, the Montreal Convention (a treaty that includes international baggage liability rules) applies to some international charter flights.  For more information on the provisions of the Montreal Convention, please visit our Baggage Liability webpage.

Public Charters

Typically, a public charter exists when a person or company contracts for the operation of an aircraft to and from a destination and then advertises and sells seats to members of the public, either directly or through a travel agent.  The company may be an airline or other entity such as a tour or vacation package company.  Some public charters operate only seasonally, and are often sold as part of a vacation package deal.  Public charter flights may provide excellent value and they often operate nonstop between cities. 

How do I find out who is operating my public charter flight?

  • All sales materials, including advertisements and price quotes, must include the name of the airline that will operate the flight and provide crewmembers to staff the flight.

Is the public charter that I am taking approved?

  • Check to make sure the public charter you are booking is approved.  The Department must approve a public charter “prospectus” that lists the flights a public charter operator wants to sell before it can sell any seat on those flights.  You can determine whether your public charter has an approved public charter prospectus by the U.S. Department of Transportation by visiting the Public Charter webpage. Once on the webpage, scroll to “List of Public Charters” and choose the year applicable to your travel.

Do I have to sign a contract when I take a public charter?

  • Yes. When you purchase a ticket for a public charter, you must also enter into an operator-participant agreement with a public charter company as a charter “participant.”  Your rights are outlined in the operator-participant contract, which must be signed by you before you travel. You have the right to receive this contract prior to making a booking, and you have the right to a full refund of any charges made to your credit card if you cancel your booking before signing the operator-participant contract.
  • Note:  Most operator-participant contracts are now electronic and are provided to consumers during the booking process.  In many cases, your agreement to the terms is incorporated into the booking process. 

Tarmac delays during public charter flights

A tarmac delay occurs when an airplane on the ground is either awaiting takeoff or has just landed and passengers do not have the opportunity to get off the plane.  DOT’s tarmac delay rule applies to public charter flights but does not apply to other types of charter flights.

  • Responsible Party - The company flying the airplane and providing staff to assist in operating the airplane (the direct air carrier) is responsible for complying with DOT’s tarmac delay rules.
  • Applies at U.S. Airports - The DOT tarmac delay rule does not apply to public charter flight operations at all airports.  The Department’s tarmac delay rule applies only to public charter flights that experience a tarmac delay at a U.S. airport.
  • Size of Aircraft Matters - DOT’s tarmac delay rule applies only to carriers with at least one aircraft in their fleet with a designed seating capacity of 30 or more seats who operate to, from, or within the United States. 
  • Passenger Rights During a Tarmac Delay - The requirements for public charter flights are the same as the requirements applicable to scheduled flights.  For more information on these requirements, please visit our Tarmac Delay webpage

Refunds due to a cancellation or major change

  • If you purchase a ticket on a public charter, the public charter company is required to notify you in writing if the charter will be cancelled or undergo a major change.  The company has seven days to notify you of the cancellation or major change if the scheduled departure date is at least 10 days away.  If the scheduled departure date is less than 10 days away, the company must notify you in writing as soon as possible. A public charter company can only cancel a charter within 10 days of the flight if there are circumstances that make it physically impossible to perform the charter trip.
  • Major changes include:
    • A change in departure or return city (not including a simple change in the order in which cities are visited).
    • A change in departure or return date, unless the date change results from a flight delay. (However, a flight delay of more than 48 hours is a major change).
    • A substitution of a hotel that was not named as an alternate hotel in your contract.
    • An increase in price, if the total of all increases billed to you is more than 10% of what you originally paid. (No increases are allowed during the last 10 days before departure.)
  • If the charter flight is cancelled, you are entitled to receive a refund within 14 days of the cancellation. If the charter company announces a major change to the charter trip prior to departure, you may cancel your trip within seven days of the major change, or up until the scheduled departure of the trip, whichever is earlier, for a full refund.  
  • If the charter operator has not announced a major change to your trip, but you cancel your travel plans, your right to a refund may be limited.  Additionally, you may not be entitled to a refund if your flight experiences a flight delay or a last-minute schedule change that changes the flight departure time by 48 hours or less. Furthermore, you may not be entitled to a refund if the charter company increases the cost of your trip by 10% or less ten or more days before departure.
  • If you pay for your trip using a credit card, you may also have some protection through your credit card company if the charter operator failed to provide you with the transportation or a refund.
  • Under the Department’s public charter rule, passenger funds are protected.  For example, passengers who do not receive refunds from the public charter operator may file a claim within 60 days of the termination of the charter.  Details on where and how to file such a claim can be found in the operator-participant contract.

Special Event Tours

A special event tour is a type of public charter that is organized for the purpose of attending a sporting, social, religious, educational, cultural, political, or other event of a special nature and limited duration, which exists for reasons separate from the air transportation itself – for example, a tour operator who sells admission to college and/or professional sporting events, the Olympics, concerts, or other events along with air transportation to the event.

  • Note:  For these charters, the operator of the tour/event must make it clear that the charter flight includes admission to the event. 

Advertising a Special Event Tour

Specific rules apply to situations where an organization offers tickets to a game or other special event that are purchased with the cost of the flight to the event, whether it is a charter or a regularly scheduled flight.

Any operator marketing an air package that is promoted as including tickets to a game or special event must have the tickets in hand or have a written contract for the tickets at the time of each sale.  DOT cautions travelers that if a game or event ticket is not specifically mentioned in advertisements or other solicitation material or listed as a tour feature, the ticket is probably not included.  

Price Increases for Special Event Tours

Special Event Tour Operators can increase the price of a tour, but the amount of the increase and the timing of the increase matter, specifically:

  • Amount of the price increase - If the tour operator increases a participant’s total tour price by more than 10 percent, that participant has the option of canceling his or her participation in the tour and receiving a full refund within 14 days after the cancellation.
  • Timing of the price increase - The tour operator cannot increase the tour price to any participant less than ten days before departure.

Receiving a Refund for a Special Event Tour

If a tour operator does not provide a consumer with admission to an advertised event at the advertised price agreed to before departure, the operator must provide the consumer with a refund of the total tour price.  This refund must be provided within 14 calendar days after the scheduled return date of the charter flight.  If a tour operator advertises a ticket combined with air transportation but does not provide the ticket with the advertised air transportation, consumers may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Affinity Charters

If your flight has been arranged by a club or other organization for its members, it may be what is called an "affinity" charter flight.  Affinity charters are charter flights where all passengers are members of a specific group or organization and pay for their own airfare individually.  These charters generally do not carry the consumer protection provisions of Public Charters.  It is important for you to understand the type of charter flight you are purchasing.

Membership Requirements

When an organization arranges an Affinity Charter for its members, the members of the organization:

  • Cannot have joined the organization merely to travel on the affinity charter flight, and
  • Must be members of the organization for a minimum of six months before the date of the charter flight, unless:
    • Note:  The “six-month rule” does not apply to:
      • Employees of a single commercial establishment, industrial plant, or government agency, or
      • Students and employees of a single school.

Affinity Charter Pricing

The price for each ticket to fly on an Affinity Charter must be the same for all adult members taking the charter flight.  Children under the age of 12 years old may be offered discounted or free transportation.

Single Entity Charters

A single entity charter exists when an individual or company contracts and pays for the operation of an entire airplane (as opposed to one or two seats, or a group of seats, on an airplane).  Individuals passengers on single entity charters do not pay their own airfare.  The individual or company that contracted for the operation of the airplane must bear the entire cost of travel and cannot sell individual seats on the aircraft.  For example, when a professional basketball team charters an entire aircraft to fly the basketball team and accompanying staff to games, the basketball players and accompanying staff do not pay for their individual seats on the aircraft. 

  • Note:  A single entity charter also exists when a group of individuals, who have self-aggregated, form a single entity for flights to be operated using small aircraft.

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