If you’ve always dreamed of space flight Blue Origin, SpaceX or Virgo Galactic, then you may have been wondering about your passenger rights once you leave Earth. I also.
Passenger rights in space sound like a sci-fi problem. But it may not be as far away as it seems. Several recent polls have suggested this interest space tourism increases. A recent study by Northern Sky Research predicts 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 demanded — and received — a refund of their $250,000 tickets. But today, Virgin Galactic’s refund policy is nowhere to be found on their website. Neither is a ticket contract or mention of the company’s obligations to passengers.
I asked Virgin Galactic about their passenger rights policy. The company publishes the base prices for its space flight on its website. The total cost of a trip to space is $450,000, starting with a $150,000 fee, which includes a $25,000 non-refundable deposit. A spokeswoman said it has a “standard” refund policy and can give your money back if you decide not to fly.
“Excellent customer service is at the core of Virgin Galactic’s value proposition,” spokeswoman Christine Delargy told me in an email.
Space tourism experts say passenger rights are far from standard. No federal agency appears to be responsible for regulation customer service issues for space travel. Delays, cancellations and refunds are left to the space companies. But change is coming.
What rights do you have when you fly into space?
“It’s extremely complicated,” says Jane Reifert, a space tourism expert who runs tour operator Incredible Adventures. She says passenger rights are at the bottom of the list of concerns. The contracts that astronauts sign deal with matters of life and death.
“Passengers on space flights have to sign their lives — literally,” she says. “You have to recognize and accept the risk of death. Before flying, they must agree to a medical examination and some level of pre-flight training.
“To expect commercial space travel to be anything like commercial air travel would be a huge mistake,” she adds.
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 charged with safety, public health, and national security issues, but Congress barred the agency from regulating the safety of anyone on board with a moratorium that expires in October 2023.
The FAA Human Spaceflight website makes no mention of customer service or consumer rights, and a spokesman for the agency told me that it has no authority to direct customer service issues.
Currently, each commercial space company is free to set its own terms. And they do.
Space Perspective, a new space company that plans to offer high-altitude balloon flights by late 2024, is charging $125,000 per ticket for a six-hour round trip to the edge of space. Booking begins with a fully refundable $1,000 deposit. The contract does not deal with refunds for cancellation of a flight. However, the flight reservation form states that it offers no guarantee of commencing commercial operations of its vehicles within any time frame “or at all”.
“Transparency to our customers throughout the Space Perspective experience is paramount to us,” said Jane Poynter, Founder and Co-CEO of Space Perspective. She says her company will finalize the details of its terms and conditions for commercial flights by the end of 2024. It plans to include policies for canceled flights, last-minute opt-outs and passenger rebookings.
“Explorers can expect these to be posted on our site and handed to them individually long before they make their final payments,” she told me.
I asked Blue Origin and SpaceX if they have a publicly available contract that addresses issues like cancellations, delays, or denied boarding. They didn’t answer.
Which questions about passenger rights need to be answered
At some point, a regulator will have to take responsibility for passenger rights in space. This agency needs to review some fundamental issues related to space travel, including:
delays: What arrangements does a space carrier make for longer delays? Is it necessary to provide room and board while astronauts wait for the next launch window?
cancellations: If a commercial space company cancels a launch, does the space line have to rebook the passenger on the next available flight? Is a refund required or can ticket credit be offered? Should this credit expire after one year, e.g some credits for airline tickets do?
Refunds: When should a space company offer passengers a refund? How long is a reasonable start delay? Which part of the ticket should be refundable? For example, can a company add a non-refundable “membership fee” to its ticket price even if no services are provided?
How will the state regulate space travel in the future?
When it comes to passenger rights, the government could choose one of several paths. One way is to enforce an airline model used by the Department of Transportation. However, the department regulates some issues related to delays, cancellations and refunds it’s a light touch compared to Europe. More often, airlines set their customer service policies, and the transportation department requires them to adhere to those policies.
Regulators could also adopt the cruise model used by the Federal Maritime Commission. The FMC has been largely reticent when it comes to regulating customer service, though it recently revised its regulations to include new requirements for providing cruise passengers with refunds for canceled or delayed trips.
The government may also decide to create another agency to address 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 could set their own policies and change them whenever they wanted. But at some point, the long arm of federal regulators will inevitably catch up with them.
Even if there are no passenger rights, there is always insurance. That’s no joke. Last year, travel insurance company Battleface launched a civilian space insurance plan. It covers accidental death and permanent disability, but unfortunately lost baggage and delays are not part of the plan. Costs vary by company depending on your age and health, as well as the type of coverage you need.
I asked Battleface how many policies were sold. A representative said the company has seen “a lot of interest” but hasn’t written any space policies yet.
It’s still early in the game. There will be more space travelers soon – and with them the inevitable customer service complaints.