By: Akia Espinoza, J.D. Candidate, May 2019, St. Thomas University School of Law.

From the woman who was travelling to see her dying mother and was kicked off a United Airlines flight, to the cellphone video of a doctor that was dragged off a United Airlines flight, the airline industry has had scandals in the last year that have raised concerns about the way we travel.  Most people travel on airplanes without thinking twice or knowing of what terms accompany a ticket seat.  Under Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, the Supreme Court established in 1976 that airlines could legally overbook flights, meaning that they could sell more tickets than actual seats in a flight.  Airlines usually overbook their flights in order to maximize seats in the plane being filled.

Under 14 C.F.R. § 250.9, “If you have been denied a reserved seat on [a flight], you are probably entitled to monetary compensation.” If a flight is overbooked, a person cannot be denied boarding against their will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers to willingly give up their reservation. However, if there are no volunteers, an airline can legally deny an unwilling passenger from boarding the plane. One might think that this automatically entitles the passenger to compensation, but there are exceptions.

Regulation 14 C.F.R. § 250.6 states that an involuntary passenger that was denied boarding may be denied compensation if the passenger does not comply with the carrier’s contract “regarding ticketing, reconfirmation, check-in, and acceptability for transportation.” Similarly, an involuntary passenger that was denied boarding may be denied compensation if the boarding denial occurred “because of substitution of equipment of lesser capacity when required by operational or safety reasons.”  The vague language in the regulation allows the airline carrier to define when a passenger is not complying, leaving the airline with almost complete control as to what involuntary passengers they will compensate.

On the plus side, if the airline does choose to compensate the passenger, a passenger flying a domestic flight can be compensated with over 400% of a one-way fare ticket, or no more than $1,350 if there’s over a two hour delay. A passenger flying internationally similarly qualifies for compensation of over 400% of a one-way fare ticket, or no more than $1,350 if there’s over a four hour delay. The airline is also required to present “a written statement explaining the terms, conditions, and limitations of denied boarding compensation, and describing the carrier’s boarding priority rules and criteria” when denying an involuntary passenger from boarding. Most importantly, if a passenger accepts compensation from an airline for being denied from boarding onto a flight, it may relieve the airline of future liability.