A reader recently wrote to me and reported the following series of events (edited for length): “Spirit Airlines had me removed from an airplane against my will by armed police. I was seated and talking to a fellow passenger at the time. I was then interrogated in the terminal by police. Some of my possessions were confiscated temporarily. After about 40 minutes, I was told that I had shone a light into the flight attendant’s eyes and interfered with the completion of her duties. This is untrue. I did not even have a light with me.
“Nevertheless, the police then forced me either to go to an ER, because I had a high pulse rate (not unexpected; I was a bit panicked) or be jailed. The ER said I was perfectly fine and released me into a strange city at midnight with nowhere to go and no idea where I was. I slept in a bus station. Spirit refused to give me transportation to my final destination.”
The reader wanted to know: “Does Spirit have to inform me why I am being forced off a plane? Does the airline have any obligation to prove that the alleged light shining incident actually occurred? Do they have any obligation to refund my ticket or pay damages, which were substantial due to ER and ambulance fees? Can the flight attendant be my judge, jury, and jailer? Does the airline have any obligation to prove its accusations?”
The short answer to a traveler’s question is that Spirit Airlines was within its contractual rights when it removed her from a flight. But her over-the-top treatment certainly seems to have been excessively and unnecessarily punitive.
The Airline’s Rights
Spirit’s contract of carriage—the contractual agreement each traveler has with an airline—specifically allows it to remove passengers, to refuse compensation, and in general to act in a unilateral and cavalier manner. The relevant portions of the contract, under Section 4, Acceptance/Refusal of Customers, state:
- 4.2. Conduct/Condition A customer shall not be permitted to board the aircraft or may be required to leave an aircraft if that customer’s conduct is disorderly, abusive or violent or if the customer:
- 4.2.2. interferes or attempts to interfere with any member of the flight crew in the pursuit of his/her duties;
- 4.2.3. is or is perceived by the flight crew to pose a security threat to the airline and/or other customers;
- 4.2.7. is denied boarding and/or required to leave an aircraft for safety and/or regulatory reasons under paragraph 4.2 and its sub sections will not be eligible for a refund.
Presumably, if not specifically, the flight attendant acted under the provisions of either 4.2.2 or 4.2.3, maybe both, and the airline used section 4.2.7 to deny assistance or compensation. That contract is obviously and outrageously one-sided, but it’s typical of most airlines’ contracts. It contains no requirements for proof of an accusation or any process for appeal. Whether or not the traveler knew about all the fine print, however, she “accepted” the onerous contract when she bought her ticket.
If the traveler decides to pursue the issue, she obviously faces an “I said, you said,” quandary. And we don’t have the airline or police version of the event. Nevertheless, our take is that Spirit showed very poor judgment and employed unnecessarily tough measures with the traveler. If she wants to pursue the matter, we suggest she proceed with these steps:
- Tally up all out-of-pocket expenses, including payments for the ER and ambulance and the cost of a new ticket to get to her destination. She can also add something for the inconvenience and mistreatment. Total it all up to a claim amount.
- Have her lawyer send a letter (she can draft it; all the lawyer has to do is put it on a legal letterhead and sign it) to Spirit’s General Counsel (name and address available on Spirit’s website under “investor relations”), stating that airline personnel clearly showed poor judgment and overreacted to a minor problem, and asking the airline to pay her claim within 30 days. She should briefly summarize the events, with flight numbers and dates, in an appendix or attachment to the letter, not in the letter itself. The obvious implication is that if not compensated, she will pursue the issue in either small claims court or state court.
- She can also give Spirit a minor black eye by complaining to the Department of Transportation and posting on as many websites as she wants.
Obtaining compensation would likely begin a protracted process. Airlines hate to admit any wrongdoing in any sort of court. Moreover, Spirit’s contract says that travelers can file actions only in Florida and that travelers waive rights to a jury trial. At best, absent an actual court case, airlines typically offer vouchers for future travel rather than cash. Chances are that if she succeeds at all, it will be “on the courthouse steps” just before the start of some formal proceeding.
Predicting the outcome isn’t easy. Some courts hold that unreasonable provisions of one-sided contracts (“contracts of adhesion”), such as requirements to file in remote states and waivers of trial rights, are unenforceble; others uphold them. Going ahead is a crapshoot. Only the traveler can decide whether pursuing a claim is worth the hassle. But if she does, we wish her well.
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