Consumer rights

What are your passenger rights in space?

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If you dreamed of a spaceflight on Blue Origin, SpaceX or Virgin Galactic, you may have wondered about your passenger rights once you leave Earth. Me too.

Passenger rights in space sound like a science fiction problem. But it may not be as far as it seems. Several recent surveys have suggested that interest in space tourism is skyrocketing. A recent study by Northern Sky Research projects that space tourism will be a $7.9 billion business by 2030.

In 2014, after a Virgin Galactic spaceplane crashed during a test flight, several passengers reportedly requested – and received – a refund of their $250,000 tickets. But today, Virgin Galactic’s refund policy is nowhere to be found on its site. There is also no ticket contract or any mention of the company‘s obligations to passengers.

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I asked Virgin Galactic about its passenger rights provisions. The company publishes the base fares for its spaceflights on its website. The total cost of a space trip is $450,000, starting with a $150,000 fee which includes and a $25,000 non-refundable deposit. A spokeswoman said it has a “standard” refund policy and can give you your money back if you decide not to fly.

“Exceptional customer service is at the heart of Virgin Galactic’s value proposition,” spokeswoman Christine Delargy told me in an email.

Space tourism experts say passenger rights are anything but standard. No federal agency appears to be responsible for regulating customer service issues for space travel. Delays, cancellations and refunds are left to space travel companies to determine. But change is coming.

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“It’s extremely complicated,” says Jane Reifert, a space tourism expert who runs tour operator Incredible Adventures. She says passenger rights are low on the list of concerns. Contracts signed by space travelers deal with matters of life and death.

“Spaceflight passengers will have to sign their lives – literally,” she says. “They will have to recognize and accept the risk of death. Before flying, they will have to accept a medical examination and a certain degree of pre-flight training.

“To expect commercial spaceflight to look like commercial air travel would be a huge mistake,” she adds.

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Which federal agency is responsible for regulating space tourism?

The Federal Aviation Administration is nominally responsible for regulating commercial space tourism through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The bureau is responsible for security, public health and national security matters, but Congress has barred the agency from regulating the safety of people on board with a moratorium that expires in October 2023.

There’s no mention of customer service or consumer rights on the FAA’s web page for human spaceflight, and an agency spokesperson told me it doesn’t have the authority to resolve customer service issues.

For now, each commercial space company is free to set its own terms. And they do.

Space Perspective, a new spaceflight company that plans to start offering high-altitude balloon rides in late 2024, charges $125,000 per ticket for a six-hour round trip to the far reaches of space. Reservation begins with a fully refundable deposit of $1,000. The contract does not deal with refunds for any failure to operate a flight. However, its flight booking form says it offers no guarantees to begin commercial operations of its vehicles anytime soon, “or even at all.”

“Transparency with our customers about the entire Space Perspective experience is of the utmost importance to us,” says Jane Poynter, Founder and Co-CEO of Space Perspective. She says her company is finalizing details of its terms and conditions for commercial flights from the end of 2024. It plans to include policies for canceled flights, last-minute passenger declines and reschedulings.

“Explorers can expect to see them posted on our website and delivered to them individually long before they provide their final payments,” she told me.

I asked Blue Origin and SpaceX if they had a publicly available contract that addressed issues like cancellations, delays, or denied boarding. They didn’t answer.

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What passenger rights questions need to be answered

At some point, a regulatory agency will have to take responsibility for passenger rights in space. This agency will need to consider some fundamental issues regarding space travel, including:

  • Delays: What kind of arrangements does a space transportation company make for extended delays? Is it mandatory to provide accommodation and meals while space travelers wait for the next launch window?
  • Cancellations: If a commercial space company cancels a launch, is the space company required to rebook the passenger on the next available flight? Should they issue a refund or can they offer ticket credit? Should this credit expire after one year, like some airline ticket credits do?
  • Refunds: When should a space transportation company offer a refund to passengers? How long is a reasonable lead time? What portion of the ticket should be refundable? For example, can a company add a non-refundable “fee” to the price of its ticket, even when no service is provided?

How will the government regulate space travel in the future?

The government could choose one of many routes when it comes to passenger rights. One option is to impose an airline model used by the Ministry of Transport. The department regulates some issues related to delays, cancellations and refunds, but it’s a bit light compared to Europe. More often than not, airlines set their customer service policies and the transportation department requires them to adhere to those policies.

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Regulators could also adopt the cruise ship model used by the Federal Maritime Commission. The FMC is mostly hands-off when it comes to regulating customer service, though it recently revised its regulations to establish new requirements for providing cruise lines with refunds for canceled or delayed trips.

The government could also decide to create another agency to handle the unique challenges of space travel and customer service. But the most likely scenario, at least in the short term, is no regulation at all. Space companies would be free to set their own policies and change them at any time. But at some point, the long arm of federal regulators will inevitably catch up with them.

Even if there are no rights for passengers, there is always insurance. This is not a joke. Last year, travel insurance company Battleface launched a civilian space insurance plan. It covers accidental death and permanent disability, but alas, lost luggage and delays are not part of the plan. Costs vary depending on your age and medical condition, as well as the type of coverage you need, depending on the company.

I asked Battleface how many fonts it sold. A representative said the company had generated “a lot of interest” but had not yet drafted a space travel policy.

It’s still early in the game. There will soon be more space travelers – and with them, the inevitable customer service complaints.