What Rights do Airline Passengers Have? Not Many.

Personal Injury
Airline Passenger Rights

It was only a short time ago when David Dao, a doctor traveling home to Kentucky, was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago. Dao had paid for a ticket and had taken his seat. However, the airlines needed four seats for employees to travel on the same flight. They offered compensation for volunteers, but when no one agreed to give up their seat, they used a computer system to randomly choose passengers that would be bumped. Unfortunately for Dao, his name was chosen. An incident that could have been simple quickly escalated. Dao refused to leave his seat and ultimately was physically removed from the plane, bloodied and dragged down the aisle.

Dao’s argument was solid: he paid for his seat, and he wanted to go home. But the law was on United’s side, which allows them to remove passengers when necessary. Dao may have the last laugh, though, as he is suing United for damages.

But more importantly, this incident brings up the question: What rights do travelers have.[S1 Travel in the U.S. changed drastically after 9/11. A new department – the Department of Homeland Security -- was created, as well as the Transportation Security Administration. Gone were the days of breezing through lines and going directly onto the plane. Instead, the new system focused on draconian security. Strict security protocols were put in place. Shoes were required to be removed, X-ray machines and scanners were added, laptops must be removed from bags. Security took priority, and the relative freedom before the tragedy was gone, and along with it many of the practices travelers previously took for granted.

“Safety is obviously paramount, but that doesn’t mean the airlines or TSA can simply do whatever they want,” said Mike Guajardo, one of the founding partners of Guajardo & Marks, a law firm in Dallas. “Travelers still have rights.”

According to a story published in April by Consumer Reports, those rights for airline passengers don’t extend very far. In an interview with George Hobica, the founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, the only thing guaranteed by most airlines is a refund if passengers aren’t allowed on the flight they booked.

Hobica goes on to say that each airline has different rules about what they will provide if a customer is bumped from a flight, whether from being overbooked, flight cancellations or any other reasons. The example he uses is Delta – the airline has a policy of placing a passenger who is not allowed on the flight they purchased on the next available flight or even on another carrier, and will provide a refund if the passenger requests it. Southwest has essentially the same policy, he said, but will not book on another carrier. Hobica also suggests laws differ by country.

However, while Consumer Reports states airlines handle delays and cancellations according to their own policies, overbooking a flight is not illegal. But there are alternatives. One is flight insurance; after paying for the insurance, if a traveler is bumped from a flight or if there is a delay or cancellation, the insurer will pay a set fee.

The federal government does offer some rules to protect airline passengers, including rules that passengers may not be kept in an airplane on the tarmac for more than three hours. And if an airline action causes an individual to be between one to two hours late on a domestic flight or one to four hours late on an international flight, the airline must “pay double your one-way airfare.”

What this means is that, ultimately, United Airlines’ treatment of Dao was not illegal. Despite his protests, they offered him compensation, gradually increasing the amount of compensation as the situation escalated. Granted, he would have been forced to wait until morning for the next flight, but that was the only available option. The airline was under no obligation to allow him to stay on the plane, despite the fact that he had purchased a ticket. Instead, he broke the law by refusing to comply.

The moral and ethical considerations are a different story. Most would agree that it is bad practice to overbook flights, and that if a customer pays for a reservation, they should be allowed to use it. This opinion became evident in the collective outrage as the video spread across television news and social media throughout the country – an outrage that undoubtedly hurt the airline more than any government fine would. Still, though, those considerations notwithstanding, United Airlines acted within their rights. Whether it is right or wrong is open to debate, but until the laws change, these sorts of incidents and practices may well continue.

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