There’s been a lot of disdain aimed toward airline companies lately, and for good reason. United Airlines literally dragged a man off of a plane because they “needed” his seat for an employee, and kicked off some girls because they were wearing leggings. Delta booted a family of four because their youngest son was using a seat that had been assigned to their oldest son. Spirit Airlines canceled a ton of flights over labor disputes, stranding tons of passengers. Then United was in the news again recently when they canceled someone’s ticket for using a phone to record interactions with airline employees. Plus, there was that whole rabbit thing. Needless to say, people are up in arms, and airlines like United are taking a pretty big hit.
Hold up, though. These stories have people upset, shouting about their rights as a paying passenger. But do you know what those rights actually are? Before you go complaining too much and boycotting, maybe you should know what’s what when it comes buying a plane ticket. Flyer’s rights do exist, thanks to the Department of Transportation, but they are pretty freakin’ barebones. Like, probably not even close to what you think they are. Let’s break this down, shall we?
The Few Rights You Have as a Flyer
First off, you absolutely need to know that airlines have the legal right to stop any passenger from flying at any time, even if the passenger doesn’t want to give up their seat. That means you mister or misses paying customer. You could be removed for being drunk, having a crying baby, smelling like butt, not wearing shoes, or even because they overbooked and need your seat for someone else they deem to be more important. Sorry. Here’s what the DOT has to say about that:
Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” Passengers are sometimes left behind or “bumped” as a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.
If you are involuntarily removed from a plane or denied boarding, you are entitled to another ticket free-of-charge, as long as you didn’t break the law. The Department of Transportation explains that this reimbursed ticket must be equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day (to a $650 maximum), as long as the substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours for international flights). It goes up to 400% if arrival time is later than two hours.
Basically, you get another ticket to where you need to go, but you’re going to be late. However, you can also insist on a check instead of the new ticket, and keep your original ticket, which you can still use on a different flight with the same carrier. And when it comes to in-flight services you’ve already paid for, they have to refund those payments to you as well. If you feel like you were wrongly removed from the flight, you can file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation. If that’s not good enough, you can also try to take the fight to small claims court if you can prove some sort of financial loss, but that’s a tough fight to win.
If your flight is delayed or canceled, however, things are a bit different. You have even fewer rights. Per the DOT:
Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled. As discussed in the chapter on overbooking, compensation is required by law on domestic trips only when you are “bumped” from a flight that is oversold.
Yes, you read that right. If your flight is canceled, they don’t have to do anything for you. They don’t even have to provide you with any amenities if you’re stranded somewhere because of a cancellation. Most airlines will put you on another flight or offer something to you as a gesture of customer service, but they don’t have to.
AND… Oh wait, that’s it. Those are your rights as a flyer.
Why All This Crazy Stuff Keeps Happening
Okay, so now let’s take a look at how some of these specific instances went down. Just to be clear, these explanations are not in defense of the airlines, but so you can understand why these things happened. Knowing the “why” doesn’t make their actions right, but it will help you come to grips with the reality of flying this day and age.
For example, what happened to Dr. David Dao was truly horrible, no doubt, and United handled it as poorly as feasibly possible. But here’s the thing—Dao was politely asked several times to exit the airplane and he refused. Your gut reaction is probably something along the lines of “Good for him, that’s crap, he’s a paying customer, he shouldn’t have to leave.” Nope, that does not matter in the eyes of the airline or the law of the skies. Remember? Airlines may remove you from an airplane at any time if they want to, as long as they properly compensate you according to the law. It’s classified as an “involuntary denied boarding,” and the number one thing that will get you in hot water—or manhandled if it strikes their fancy—is not following flight crew instructions. If you’re told by flight crew or security to get off a plane, do it.
FAA regulations are extremely clear about that, stating “…no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.” Dao was asked to disembark repeatedly (for a bullshit reason, I know, but still), he refused to comply, saying he had patients to see the next morning, they sent Chicago PD on board, he continued to refuse, then Chicago PD and flight personnel made the call to physically remove him, which they technically have the authority to do. You may not like it, and United’s insane actions were a horrible fiasco, but them’s the breaks. Over 46,000 passengers were “bumped” from flights in 2016 alone, so this is incredibly common. Let’s look at the rest of these examples:
- The girls that were kicked off that United flight for wearing leggings were also breaking some rules. They weren’t normal passengers, and were using free employee ticket vouchers that required them to fly under the airline’s strict company dress code. Their leggings did not qualify for said dress code and they were denied boarding—plain and simple. Regular passengers may wear leggings.
- The family booted from the Delta flight had a child flying in a seat that was not assigned to him. It was assigned to his older brother—who had already flown home on a separate flight—meaning that ticket (and seat) did not belong to the child that was actually on the plane. You can’t do that. Child or not, in the airline’s eyes it’s no different than an adult flying with someone else’s ticket.
- Spirit Airlines can cancel every one of their flights whenever they like. It would be bad for business, sure, but they can do it if they so choose. Most airlines usually try to get you on the next available flight, and some airlines might even endorse a new ticket for you on a new carrier, but it’s entirely up to the airline. There are no official rules, and, as mentioned, they don’t even owe you compensation. If they do put you on the next available flight, though, you’re not likely to be provided any amenities while you’re stranded. This is especially common with low-fare airlines like Spirit.
- Lastly, United flight crew may deny boarding to someone who is recording them without their permission because, again, flight crew may deny boarding to anyone at any time. In all-party consent states, recording audio without their permission is illegal anyway. This took place in Louisiana, which isn’t an all-party state, but flight crew still has the final say. If you’re doing something to upset them or tick them off, be prepared to pay for it.
Don’t get me wrong. None of this is “fair,” so to speak, but it’s the way it is right now. You must comply with plane regulations and flight crew at all times, period. This is the reality of flying in our post 9/11, corporation-controlled world. You have the right to compensation for lost time and inconvenience in some instances, and you have the right to file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation, and, well, that’s about it!
Know Your Rights but Understand the Reality
So yes, airlines are mostly deserving of their bad reputations because they continue to handle almost every situation they’re presented without a shred of grace or sliver of humanity. But media frenzy, a general misunderstanding of flyer rights, and people’s all-too-present self-entitlement are what’s feeding the flames of this raging bonfire. There’s more to this messed up equation than people being mistreated, and it’s important you know all the variables if you intend to fly.
Hopefully, all the media coverage of these incidents teaches the airlines a lesson and helps change their rules for the better. But until then, you don’t get to refuse flight crew, you don’t get to do whatever you like because you’re “a paying customer, dammit,” and you don’t get to break rules (even if they seem ridiculous). You have the right to remain silent, lean your chair back at cruising altitude, and watch terrible comedies while you sip Fresca from a plastic cup that’s way too small—unless the airline says otherwise. Have a nice flight.