In recent weeks, certain unfortunate and disturbing incidents on major airline flights have made international news, leading many people to wonder about passengers’ rights on domestic and international flights. Is there such a thing as an airline passenger bill of rights?
Perhaps the most infamous recent incident involved a man who was involuntarily “bumped” and then physically dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight in April 2017. Several other passengers on the flight took cell phone videos of the altercation between the Chicago aviation authorities and the passenger, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky. These videos revealed a high level of force used to remove the man from the flight—force that ultimately resulted in injuries to him, including a concussion, broken teeth and a broken nose.
Since that incident came to light in news outlets around the world, discussion of airline passenger rights has understandably taken center stage. What are passengers’ rights aboard an aircraft? Which entities determine and enforce those rights? To understand this issue, we need to take a closer look at the history of airline consumer protection laws.
General Laws Protecting Airline Consumers
Since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the federal government no longer has control over some of the business practices followed by many airlines. Still, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does determine and enforce certain protections for airline customers (i.e., passengers), and further, those airline passenger protections have been expanded in recent years to outline passengers’ rights in cases of lost luggage, hidden ticket fees, extended tarmac delays and more. Meanwhile, international agreements like the Montreal Convention address passenger problems occurring on international flights.
The main DOT airline consumer protection law in effect states that passengers have the right to expect “safe and adequate service in airline transportation” and to be protected “from unfair or deceptive practices” by airline carriers. If airline carriers are determined to have violated these or other consumer protection laws, the DOT is authorized to enforce the law.
Laws Regarding Overbooked Flights
The common practice of an airline selling more tickets than there are seats on the plane, commonly known as overbooking or overselling flights, is an issue that has taken center stage due to recent incidents like the one aboard the United Airlines flight. The DOT has outlined airline passenger protections relating to overbooked flights along with several other issues in its Consumer Guide to Air Travel and Airline Consumers’ Rights FAQ.
These sources state what anyone moderately familiar with air travel already knows from experience: In the case of both domestic and international flights, it is common practice for airlines to overbook flights in order to compensate for “no-show” passengers. And while arguably inconvenient and annoying for those passengers who are involuntarily “bumped,” this practice is not illegal.
DOT Rules Regarding Involuntarily Bumping Passengers
In the case of passengers being bumped involuntarily from overbooked flights, airlines are legally required to do the following:
- Ask for volunteers first to give up their seats, before bumping anyone involuntarily from an oversold flight.
- Disclose to passengers the airline’s criteria for determining which passengers may be bumped involuntarily.
- Provide the bumped passenger with substitute transportation and compensation (if required according to a set of tiered dollar amounts based on projected arrival time delays).
The above rules apply to both domestic and international flights with larger commercial airline carriers but not to charter flights or flights on smaller planes that hold fewer than 30 passengers. Also, airlines are permitted to determine their own criteria—such as a passenger’s frequent-flyer status, the fare they paid or how late they checked in for the flight—for involuntarily bumping a passenger.
When Federal Consumer Protection Laws Fail Airline Passengers
Fortunately, involuntarily bumping passengers is rare. Unfortunately, none of the above rules adequately covers situations like the one that occurred on the United flight, in which the doctor, who had already boarded the plane and taken his seat, was then de-boarded by force. While most cases of passengers being involuntarily bumped from flights occur in the gate or ticketing area, rather than after the passenger has already boarded the plane, this isn’t always the case, as the United Airlines incident made clear.
That incident called to light the fact that the DOT’s oversales rules do not specify limitations on when or where airlines are permitted to involuntarily bump a passenger. Furthermore, the DOT’s rules do not address the manner, including acceptable level of force, in which airlines may enforce involuntary de-boarding of passengers. Until future legislation addresses these gaps in regulations, other passengers may still be at risk of suffering personal injury due to similar incidents.
Since the April 2017 United Airlines incident, Congress has been actively looking into ways to overhaul airline policies to prevent such incidents in the future. Consumer advocacy groups hope that passenger protections will be further expanded and clearer rules will be imposed regarding overbooked flights and involuntarily bumped passengers. Specifically, many lawmakers are determined to pass legislation banning airlines from forcibly removing passengers already aboard the aircraft (in the case of an overbooked flight). Still, any aviation bill that comes to a vote is sure to be the subject of much debate.
What to Do if You or a Loved One Experiences Injury Aboard a Flight
Unfortunately, seeking legal action against an airline can be an intimidating, costly and sometimes disappointing venture for a passenger, even in seemingly clear cases of personal injury or wrongful death due to an airline’s negligence or unfair practices.
Fortunately, at Slack Davis Sanger, our attorneys are experts in aviation laws, regulations and related consumer protections. If you or someone you know has suffered injury or wrongful death while aboard a commercial flight, air ambulance, private plane or other aircraft, Slack Davis Sanger can help. We have a track record spanning two decades and are committed to giving our clients personal, caring attention as we handle their personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit with dignity and respect.