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What Rights Do You Have as an Airline Passenger?
In light of disturbing new footage of a man being dragged off a United Airlines plane, we asked the experts what you need to know about your onboard rights.
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For the second time in a matter of weeks, United Airlines finds itself in the middle of a PR nightmare. When a passenger on a flight from Chicago to Louisville refused to leave the plane when asked, he was forcibly removed by security, and footage of the incident taken by other nearby passengers has gone viral.



The videos are horrific—the police physically engage the man, reportedly a doctor trying to get home to his patients, and then drag him, visibly bloodied, down the aisle and off the plane. (United's CEO has since issued a lack-luster statement, and one officer involved has reportedly been placed on leave.)

But is what happened legal?

At this point, Charles Leocha isn't sure. Leocha is the chairman and co-founder of Travelers United, a non-profit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. that works with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and Congress on issues related to traveler rights.

"I saw the video. It turns my stomach. It’s not right. I’m not sure it’s lawful," he told me this morning, mentioning that the DOT consumer protection division is currently looking into the situation.

He also said that the laws and regulations that protect airlines in these situations are broad and often favor the air travel corporations. Further complicating matters, not many people know their rights (or, frankly, the lack thereof) in these situations.

Here's what you need to know:

Airlines can bump you from a flightbut you have to be compensated.

Most of us are probably aware that overbooking is now standard practice for most airlines. “It’s totally legal; whether it’s ethical or not is another discussion," the Points Guy's Brian Kelly said in a Facebook Live video this morning about the United incident, citing the 50,000 people who were involuntarily denied boarding from planes last year.

However, you must be compensated for your trouble, with rates that are specifically outlined by the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Evidently, United offered up to $800 plus an overnight for people to get off the plane, and nobody wanted to get off," Leocha said. "And I don’t know how much everybody paid for their tickets and so on, but the maximum the Department of Transportation requires United to pay is $1,350 in cash, and I don’t think that was ever dangled in front of anybody."

It should never have gotten to the point where force was used. "I find absolutely no justification for it," Leocha said. Kelly seemed to agree. "United was wrong here...They could have done a lot more to avoid this situation."

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Before yesterday’s incident escalated, United reportedly asked for volunteers to give up their seats on the flight. They first offered $400 and then $800 plus hotel to try and entice someone to get off the plane. This process of asking for volunteers is required by law. Should no one opt to give up their seat for the announced compensation, then, according to the Code of Federal Regulations, "the carrier may deny boarding to other passengers in accordance with its boarding priority rules." 

If you are voluntarily bumped, the DOT requires that the airline gives them a “written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't.” They also lay out a list of rules regarding compensation, including lots of specific dollar amounts you're owed depending on how much later your new flight will get you in.

For example, if your "substitute transportation" gets you in two hours after the originally scheduled time or the airline can't schedule a substitute, you're entitled to up to 400 percent of your one-way fare or a maximum of $1,350. Airlines may offer compensation in the form of tickets or travel vouchers, but involuntarily bumped passengers always have the right to receive compensation by check.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, if you no longer have a valid reservation, you missed the check-in deadline, or you were bumped for safety reasons, you may be denied the compensation listed above. (For full details of DOT regulations, visit transportation.gov.)

When the police ask you to leave a plane, get off the plane.

There's a lot about the United situation that is still unclear—including why the apparently overbooked passengers were allowed to board the plane in the first place—but details aside, Kelly says that if an authority figure asks you to get off a plane, get off the plane. Even if it seems unjust, the issue is better dealt with back in the terminal.

"The minute you become non-compliant with cabin crew and the pilot, the pilot is authorized by FAA law to take you off the flight. They are in full control over the safety on that flight," Kelly said.

It all comes back to the contract of carriage.

When you buy a ticket for a flight, you entering into a legally binding agreement called a contract of carriage, agreeing to that airline's rules, regulations, and procedures. Usually filled with legalese, these documents include information on issues of lost luggage, over bookings, delays, and missed connections. It also outlines what actions can be taken in the case of non-compliant passengers.

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For example, according to United's contract of carriage, "Whenever refusal or removal of a Passenger may be necessary for the safety of such Passenger or other Passengers or members of the crew including, but not limited to... Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives."

Both Leocha and Kelly are advocates for knowing your rights as a passenger, and increased transparency between airlines and their consumers is something Travelers United is currently fighting for. Instead of buried within legal documents on an airline's website, Leocha would like to see information about required compensation printed on posters at airports, on boarding passes, and ticket itineraries.

Don't be afraid to speak up if you think something is unjust.

Leocha also offered some tips on what to do should you find yourself witnessing questionable behavior by airline crew or airport security.

“Make sure to video it. This kind of mistreatment of passengers should not be allowed to happen,” he said. “If we didn’t see this video, and see this guy being forcibly dragged out with a fat lip, then you almost wouldn’t believe. I’m incredulous.”

But the minute you whip out your phone, you become a part of the situation. “If you get involved, then you’re really involved,” he cautioned. “You’re going to have to go to court. They may drag you off, too, or accuse you of getting in the way of a flight crew.”

It's an ethical question, and hopefully one you will never be required to make.

For more information on traveler's rights, please visit:

 

And if you want to dive deep, check out your airline's contract of carriage. Here's a link to United's for reference.


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Caroline Hallemann
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