It seems every week we hear another airline horror story. A passenger involuntarily removed (dragged while bleeding and screaming) from a United Airlines flight. A woman juggling 15-month old twins reduced to tears after an American Airlines flight attendant reportedly whacked her with her own stroller, narrowly missing one of the babies. A couple, on their way to their wedding in Costa Rica, booted off a United flight when their assigned seats were occupied by a sprawled out and sleeping passenger. Instead of allowing them to pay for upgraded seats they were ordered off the plane.
So what are your rights on an airplane? When you pay for your ticket what exactly is the airline guaranteeing you? The harsh reality: after a customer forks over their money to fly it is the airline that continues to hold nearly all the cards. In the name of passenger safety (an essential, let’s admit) there is no real equality or justice in the friendly skies. That’s because the captain and crew have control over what you may and may not do.
They can arbitrarily order a seated passenger off the plane either because the flight is overbooked or a crew member needs the seat to get to their next assignment. (Legally, Dr. David Dao of the infamous United Airline dragging video, was required to give up his seat when asked.) The airline is required to compensate the passenger if this occurs with the amount of payment tied to how long the customer will be delayed and a percentage of what they paid for their ticket.
Interestingly, an obscure DOT regulation encourages the airline to choose passengers who paid the least for their tickets because the percentage of compensation the airline will have to pay will be less. That cut-rate ticket you got may very well be the reason you’re targeted to be bumped.
An airline can refuse service to anyone they suspect is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If you stopped at the airport bar ahead of the flight I’d suggest a mint before you board.
The flight crew can call in airport security officers to arrest you if you don’t comply with their orders. They can have police waiting for you at your destination if you are perceived to have “interfered with the duties of a flight crew member” in any way.
In addition, airlines do not guarantee their flight schedules, nor do they have to accommodate your choice of where to sit. Even if you pre-selected a specific seat the airline can ignore your choice because seat assignments are not part of the “contract of carriage” you enter into when you buy a ticket.
Despite Department of Transportation rules that say domestic airline passengers may not be stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours (and must be provided food, water and working toilets) the captain can override that rule if he or she declares there is a safety or security reason why the plane cannot leave its position. And, no, you don’t get any compensation for getting stranded on a tarmac but the DOT can fine the airline.
There are plenty more rules and regulations that affect both passengers and the airlines too. But the bottom line is that even if you pay top dollar for your ticket you have few actual rights once you board. It’s all about a very few number of people (the crew) exercising control over everyone else (the passengers) in the name of safety.
But let’s be fair. Imagine, if you can, the plight of today’s flight crews.
Nathan Henderson has been a flight attendant for a major airline for four years now and loves his job. But he recently told a reporter, “Everyone has this ‘Passengers’ Lives Matter’ mentality” these days. Passengers are often disrespectful and downright snarky, Henderson says, and during an average workday he might have to deal with as many as 900 passengers on various flights.
Henderson reports that since the latest spate of news about flight attendant vs. passenger confrontations some of the flying public have become combative, egging on crew members with comments like, “I was going to push my call light for a drink, but I don’t want to get dragged down the aisle.”
Through it all the attendants are supposed to remain professional. “It’s frustrating but we just have to take it and smile because they can tape it and tweet it – usually out of context – and get us in trouble at any moment,” Henderson says.
The underlying problem, of course, is that so many people seem spoiling for a fight in this angry era of economic, racial and political division. While fewer earthbound laws and rights apply up in the sky wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just took a breath and remembered that notion of “do unto others” your mother always told you about?