What Are Your Flight Rights?

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?


  1. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Facebook Friend Susan Silver writes:

    Good info thanks!!!

  2. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Facebook Friend Dina Monaco-Boland writes:

    Great article and a good read for those who may not know. Plus, from talking with a good friend who is a flight attendant, those stories of rude, inciteful people are only on the rise. Such a shame.

  3. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Facebook Friend Ginnie Oleskewicz Schwartz writes:

    I don’t fly, well actually I stay home lol…

  4. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Facebook Friend Anne Kass writes:

    I suspect the primary reason why airline passengers are so rude and otherwise strung-out is because air travel is so inconvenient, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and unpredictable, not to mention expensive. Now that we need to get to the airport a couple hours before flight time, being told at the airport that you will not be flying that day is adding injury to a host of small insults passengers experience, starting with trying to book tickets and ending only when (if) one’s baggage actually arrives. Airline corporations do not get my sympathy. Their employees do. It is the corporations that write all lopsided rules Ms. Diamond reported, which may be useful information, but one doesn’t have to like it.

  5. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Facebook Friend Joya Colucci Lord writes:

    Thank you for helping to educate the masses, Diane, and maybe, also, to stave off the armchair attorneys.

  6. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    Facebook Friend Conrad James writes:

    I’m curious – what law gave United the right to forcibly remove that man from his seat on the plane?

    • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:43 pm

      Facebook Friend Diane Dimond replies:

      No laws, Conrad, just DOT regulations…..decided in Washington

      • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:45 pm

        Facebook Friend Douglas Shearer replies:

        And NTSB rules which allow the airlines to have greater control over fees, booking, and flight options. Always read the fine print when choosing the best airline available, and the lowest price is not always the best deal for you.

        • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 6:45 pm

          Facebook Friend Conrad James replies:

          I figured as much, but this is a good example of the threat to liberty that can occur in the fourth branch of government, the regulatory state. There is no accountability and no redress other than the courts. I may have to suport the idea of new legislation to fix this (I’m really wary of passing laws for every problem)…

  7. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    Facebook Friend Anne Kass replies:

    Diane Dimond You’re not suggesting that DOT and or NTSB wrote those regulations and rules without Airline Corporation input, make that control, are you? It’s not government that’s writing these one-sided provisions, it is a corporate captured and corrupted government that is malfunctioning this way.

    • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:06 pm

      Conrad James replies:

      All interested parties– corporations, individuals, small businesses – should be active in the legal/regulatory debates that concern them. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is the responsibility of elected officials (who are the only ones accountable) to make sure regulators (who only have their authority delegated to them by elected officials) are striking the appropriate balance in their regulations.

      • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:06 pm

        Anne Kass replies:

        That’s how it’s supposed to work alright.

  8. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:08 pm

    Facebook Friend Donna R. Gore writes:

    Very interesting and enlightening! I was working on a travel resources piece this weekend as I have honed my skills in this area as a single- solo gluten free traveler who happens to have a disability! Lol Usually not a problem if you are savvy and a seasoned traveler! However, flying is becoming more degrading due to low rent passengers. But what’s a girl supposed to do if she doesn’t feel safe driving solo across the U.S.?

  9. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Facebook Friend William Drummond writes:

    These unfortunate incidents did not happen when we had the Civil Aeronautics Board. Thank you, deregulation.

    • Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      Anne Kass replies:

      Well and necessarily said, William Drummond.

  10. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    Scott Webster replies:


  11. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    Facebook Friend Kathleen Sullivan writes:

    People cannot believe they sign the rights away in that contract. They do.

  12. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    Facebook Friend Alan Zelazo writes:

    Great article Diane Dimond. I also liked your bio at the end on how you were raised. Being raised in Brooklyn my parents had the same philosophy.

  13. Diane Dimond on May 2, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Noozhawk Reader MaxWebXperienZ writes:

    Cattle cars…

Leave a Comment