Just how easy is it to get kicked off a plane? If you ask the mothers in these stories (here and here), they'll tell you it's not difficult at all: Just bring an unruly child aboard, and presto!—you're back in the gate as if nothing happened. But the fact is airlines can remove passengers, both children and adults, for a host of other reasons, too.
When you buy an airline ticket, you effectively sign what's called a contract of carriage. No two airline's contracts of carriage are identical, but all cover the same essential contingencies: What happens when flights are cancelled or delayed, baggage rules and restrictions, and so forth. These contracts also have a section called "Refusal to Transport" (or, again, something similar) that covers the reasons a passenger may be refused by the airline. The typical reasons go something like this (I randomly chose Delta's contract for this example):
- Government request or regulations
- Refusal to submit to a search of passenger or property
- Failure to produce proof of identity
- Failure to provide sufficient documentation for border crossing (or if crossing an international boundary would be unlawful)
- Failure to comply with Delta’s rules or contract of carriage, and
- Passenger's conduct or condition
It's that last entry, "passenger's conduct or condition," that I want to focus on. Delta says it "may refuse to transport or may remove passengers from its aircraft in any of the following situations:
- When the passenger’s conduct is disorderly, abusive or violent
- When the passenger is barefoot
- When the passenger appears to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs
- When the passenger attempts to interfere with any member of the flight crew in the pursuit of his or her duties, or fails to obey the instruction of any member of the flight crew
- When the passenger has a contagious disease that may be transmissible to other passengers during the normal course of the flight
- When the passenger has a malodorous condition
- When the passenger is unable to sit in a seat with the seatbelt fastened
- When the passenger requires an onboard stretcher kit
- When the passenger’s behavior may be hazardous to himself/herself, the crew, or other passengers
- When the passenger is seriously ill, and fails to provide a physician's written permission to fly
- When the passenger is traveling in an incubator
- When the passenger’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers
- When the passenger’s conduct creates a risk of harm or damage to the carrier’s aircraft and/or property, or the property of other passengers
You bet it does.
In most cases, violating these rules won't get you kicked off the plane. Airline crews generally have more important things to worry about than your bare feet, and most will give passengers a chance to comply, if possible, with the rule being broken. They're not out to kick people off the plane, after all (though sometimes they do so when maybe they shouldn't).
Nevertheless, as we saw with those noisy children, it does happen. But we also saw that airline contracts give passengers various rights and protections when they are removed from the plane. Here's what Delta's contract states:
"The sole recourse of any passenger refused carriage or removed en route for any reason specified [above] shall be recovery of the refund value of the unused portion of his or her ticket."
Compensation varies from carrier to carrier, of course, but the important thing for passengers to remember is that you do have rights. Just because you violate one of the rules above does not mean you forfeit your ticket. You are, at minimum, allowed to apply the value of your ticket (or the unused portion of it) toward a rebooking, but most airlines are also contractually obligated to provide you with a refund or some other form of assistance.
This is especially important as we enter flu season, as most, if not all airlines include a contagious disease contingency. We've already seen one story about a woman getting kicked off a plane over flu fears (though the woman did not have the flu), and H1N1 hysteria is liable to make passengers and crew hyper-sensitive to sick passengers.
So what should you do if you are kicked off a plane?
Start by speaking to someone at the gate. Be polite (I can't stress that enough). Explain what happened and what you would like the airline to do about it (refund, rebooking, etc.).
If the gate agent can't help (or isn't there), go to the ticket counter and tell your story again. Make it known (again, politely!) that you understand the airline's obligations. It would also be helpful to program the airline's customer service numbers into your phone, just in case you don't get anywhere with the people at the airport.
Unfortunately, I can't promise that you'll get the result you want right away. As we've seen, regrettably, airport employees aren't always well-versed in the airline's policies. But if you know your rights, you should be able to get what you're owed.
And if all else fails, email me or leave a comment below.