Today, the world woke up to a very disturbing video of a United Airlines passenger being bloodied and dragged off an overbooked flight so that a United employee could fly in his place. The footage has caused outrage with numerous calls to boycott the airline. Many have pointed out that the man was a paying customer who posed no threat, so the airline had no right to forcibly remove him.
There's no question that what happened to this passenger was completely over the top. But on a technical level, it was also entirely legal to eject him. It turns out airlines can kick you off a flight for all sorts of reasons. Let's take a look at the facts.
Photo by Rob Briscoe.
When it comes to flying, crew members do whatever it takes to make a flight comfortable, pleasant, and most importantly, safe for their passengers. Anything, or anyone, that stands in the way of them doing their job gets removed.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of stuff you can do on a plane that can earn you the boot. Why? Well, the flight crew basically gets the last say so they won't hesitate to yank out any wrenches in their gears. If you're involved in one of the following scenarios on a US flight, they can snap their fingers and have you removed before you have the chance to complain on social media:
- Not following crew instructions: The flight crew are the ruling authority as soon as you set foot in their magic metal tube of flying. If you do not comply with their rules, you will be ejected (not mid-flight, don't worry) or force the pilot to make an emergency landing so you can be removed. FAA regulations state "...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." This could be something as simple as not buckling your seat belt when they ask. Seriously. Basically, what they say goes. Period. If you remember only one thing from this list, make it this.
- Being disruptive: Arguing, yelling, annoying the people around you, causing a scene, or touching other passengers can get your boarding pass revoked. You'll usually be given a warning or two, but don't push it. Shut up, sit down, and don't touch me.
- Being too drunk: They're not going to give you a breathalyzer test or anything like that. But if you can't hold your liquor and start to become disruptive, see above.
- Having a crying baby: Unfortunately, air travel is particularly tough for new parents. Babies are new to the world but sure seem to know flying is unnatural for us humans, and they like to announce it. It sucks, but if you can't get your baby to calm down, flight crew may ask you to get off and catch a later flight when the baby has accepted its fate and decided sleeping is a better use of its time.
- Smelling gross: If something stinks on a plane, everyone will have to smell it for the entire flight. So yes, bad body odor, excessive flatulence, and lack of personal hygiene will get you grounded. It doesn't happen often, but it's listed by most airlines, like Delta, American Airlines, and United, as an offence worthy of removal. This is easily avoided by washing yourself, using a deodorant or antiperspirant, or wearing special charcoal underwear.
- Not wearing shoes: This one might seem silly, but there are two very good reasons why you need to wear shoes on a plane. The first reason is because your feet probably stink. You did just haul arse through a massive airport terminal, after all. The second is for safety. If there's an emergency, the flight crew wants everybody to be able to quickly move to safety without hurting themselves. Shoes are pretty great for that.
- Wearing provocative clothing: That thing you're walking down is an aeroplane aisle, not a fashion show runway. Carriers like American Airlines say they have the right to remove passengers who "...are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offence to other passengers." So save the super-sexy, eye-popping outfits for another time. Like when you're alone and nobody can see you. Sometimes airlines spark controversy for judging people's clothes, like when United recently barred two teenage girls from a flight just for wearing leggings.
- Being too big: Most airlines have rules regarding passengers who are too large to fit into plane seats or, as Delta puts it, are "...unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened." It sounds discriminatory, but it really has to do with safety. If you can't buckle your seat belt, your at risk and so is the airline.
- Being allergic to nuts: People with severe nut allergies have a hard time flying since aeroplanes are basically multi-million dollar peanut transporting devices. If your allergy is severe enough, there's a small chance flight crew will decline your boarding for your own safety. Usually, though, they will just refrain from passing out peanuts on that flight. Which is kind of a bummer for me. I mean, I'm glad you're alive or whatever, but pretzels suck.
- Looking sick: This is a no-brainer. If you look like you have the flu, are puking in a garbage can by the gate, or you pronounce "I'm fine" like "Ahm fiiiine-duh," the flight crew might keep you grounded. If you are sick, you really shouldn't be around other people in tight spaces anyway.
- Joining the "mile-high club": You may tempted to try for some in-flight entertainment with your partner, but if you get caught you could get in trouble and be removed. It's unlikely since the act is not technically illegal here in the states, and flight attendants are painfully aware of how often it happens, but freaky flyers beware.
So, what's a recently kicked-off-the-plane person to do? For starters, comply immediately. You are not going to win if you argue here (just look what happened to that guy this morning). It's like being bounced from a club - once they have decided to remove you, you're out.
After you've been removed, ask for another ticket. Most airlines will get started on this anyway, especially if you were removed for a less-serious reason and complied, but ask anyway. Being removed from a plane is an "involuntary denied boarding," meaning you are entitled to compensation as long as you didn't do anything against the law. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airline must reimburse you a ticket equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day (to a $US650 ($847) 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). In plain English, you get another ticket to where you need to go, but you're going to be late. Unless you broke the law. If you did something illegal, you'll be arrested and won't get anything back.
If you feel like you were wrongly removed from the flight, you can file a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation. You can also try to take the fight to small claims court if you can prove some sort of financial loss. But if that seems like too much paperwork, attorney Adam Wasch suggests you complain and ask for an apology in the form of a flight voucher, frequent flier miles, or some other reasonable compensation for your troubles.