What rights do airplane passengers have?

Jen Rose Smith, CNNUpdated 17th July 2019
(CNN) — After a Jamaican vacation ended in humiliation aboard an American Airlines flight in June, the ensuing controversy reignited debate about passengers' rights.
Dr. Latisha Rowe was leaving Jamaica on a flight to Miami when an American Airlines employee told her she'd have to cover up -- or miss her flight. Rowe, who was wearing a strapless romper and traveling with her 8-year-old son, voiced her frustration with the airline the following day.
"When defending my outfit, I was threatened with not getting back on the flight unless I walked down the aisle wrapped in a blanket," she wrote on Twitter.
It's one of a series of clothing-related incidents that have sparked outrage in recent years, from the United Airlines leggings incident to the Thomas Cook Airlines crew who insisted a woman cover up her crop top. American Airlines responded to an emailed inquiry with their dress code policy, which reads: "Dress appropriately; bare feet or offensive clothing aren't allowed."
It leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
"It's pretty much up to individual airlines," says Paul Hudson, the president of airline consumer advocacy organization FlyersRights.org. "It often devolves down to individuals' judgments and the flight attendants."

Follow directions, complain later

And unless the passenger is the victim of discrimination, they may have little recourse.
That's because stepping on an airplane means giving up some freedoms. "When you get on an airliner, you don't have the same rights you do on the ground," Hudson explains. "The authority of the captain is pretty much dictatorial."
Follow crew instructions and document the issue. Regardless of the cause, arguing with crew members can land passengers in serious legal trouble, since it's a felony to interfere with airline staff.
"If you get in any kind of altercation with the flight crew, you could be charged with a federal crime," said Hudson. "It was put in for anti-terrorism measures, but it's been used for pretty much everything but that."
In light of that situation, Hudson advises passengers to document any on-board conflict while reserving serious complaints about cabin crew after the flight. Above all, it's important to deplane if you're ordered to do so -- even if you think the crew's behavior is unfair or discriminatory.
Once you're back in the airport, you can contact the airline, file a complaint with the DOT or call the FlyersRights hotline for further guidance.

What happens if a crime happens onboard?

Thomas Cook Airlines staff threatened to remove Emily O'Connor from a flight for wearing "inappropriate" attire.
Thomas Cook Airlines staff threatened to remove Emily O'Connor from a flight for wearing "inappropriate" attire.
From Twitter
Cabin crew are charged with maintaining order but pursuing justice for an onboard crime can be a challenge.
In recent years, reports of sexual harassment and assault aboard planes have travelers wondering who to turn to.
If a crime happens in the air, says Hudson, it's within the jurisdiction of the FBI. While the flight crew is the first line of defense, Hudson notes that many sexual harassment and assault complaints on planes never make it to the FBI or aren't reported in a timely way.
"We estimate that about 95% of the cases go unresolved," he explains, "because by the time authorities are alerted through the four- or five-step process that now exists, the plane has landed and everyone has left."
Ensure your safety and report all crimes. As CNN has reported, a lack of data means the frequency of attacks is hard to track, but in 2018, the FBI announced that reports of sexual assaults on commercial airline flights were increasing at "an alarming rate."
In October 2018, President Donald Trump, who has been accused of groping a woman on a plane, ordered the Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to form a National In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force charged with addressing the problem. Trump denied the woman's allegations.
For passengers who are harassed or assaulted on a plane, Hudson emphasizes the importance of reporting incidents to flight staff and ensuring personal safety during the remainder of the flight.
To secure a timely investigation, though, he suggests using onboard WiFi to simply contact the FBI yourself.

Can airlines bump you involuntarily from an overbooked flight?

Dr. David Dao was dragged off a United Airlnes flight after he refused to deplane.
Dr. David Dao was dragged off a United Airlnes flight after he refused to deplane.
JayceDavid/Twitter
The short answer is "yes." But they might owe you.
According to Department of Transportation regulations, airlines may overbook flights then ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation.
When that doesn't work, involuntary bumping starts. "If an insufficient number of volunteers come forward," the law reads, "the carrier may deny boarding to other passengers in accordance with its boarding priority rules."
Know your rights to compensation. Should you be involuntarily bumped from a flight, it's still the airline's job to get you where you're going.
On domestic flights, the airline must pay you 200% of your one-way fare if you arrive at your final destination one to two hours late after getting involuntarily bumped (though the payout maxes out at $675). When the delay hits two hours, you're entitled to 400% of your one-way fare, or up to $1,350.
And while many airlines offer vouchers as a first option, travelers are always entitled to request a check instead.

What about flight cancellations and delays?

When flights are delayed and canceled, American passengers on domestic flights have little recourse, since there are no federal requirements for compensation.
If you're already on the plane, the DOT prohibits domestic flights from lingering on the tarmac for more than three hours, but even that rule has exceptions: Your wait could stretch even longer if it's not safe to deplane or if deplaning would disrupt airport operations.
Know your rights in the European Union. On flights to and from EU countries, the laws are different. If your airport of origin is within the EU or if you're arriving to the EU on an EU airline, you're entitled to a refund for delays longer than five hours and additional compensation for some shorter delays.
Why the difference between US and EU laws? "There's a different attitude by the governing bodies," Hudson explains. "The airlines have a really large influence --I would say an undue influence -- over national policy" in the United States.
According to Hudson, that's proved an obstacle to meaningful change in the United States. "They oppose virtually any consumer protection or passenger rights legislation across the board," he says, "the mantra has been that competition will take care of all problems."