American threw me off my flight. Do I have any recourse?

When Mike Thompson boarded his American Airlines flight, he tried to bring a piece of carry-on luggage aboard. The gate agent refused to allow him to do so and ultimately threw him off the flight.

Thompson thinks the gate agent overzealously tried to enforce the carry-on restrictions, and that his removal from the flight was unreasonable and inconsistent with good customer service. We thought so too – until we looked more closely into Thompson’s case.

The incident

Thompson and his business partner were about to board a flight from Dallas to Nashville, in order to attend the wedding of one of their employees, when the gate agent stopped them.

“You aren’t taking that bag on the plane,” the agent abruptly told Thompson. He stared back in confusion at the agent, who then told him, “You can’t take that bag on the plane. You have a basic economy ticket.”

Thompson had purchased a “basic economy” ticket, which allows for one carry-on that must easily fit under the seat in front of the passenger.

Believing that the gate agent was referring to the size of his carry-on, Thompson placed the bag in the measuring box, where it fit within the acceptable dimensions for carry-on luggage.

But the agent insisted that Thompson pay a baggage fee of $50 in order to check it. Thompson’s business partner produced a credit card and paid the fee.

Unfortunately for Thompson, he tried to continue the discussion with the gate agent.

He explained that he “travels on 100 flights per year” and that this was the first time he had ever been prevented from boarding with this carry-on. But the gate agent “elevated his aggressive tone and had no patience or empathy for me, the situation, or my understanding of it.”

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A mistake

Then Thompson made a mistake that led to his removal from the flight.

He responded: “You need to work on your customer service, tone, and tact.” After complimenting two other gate agents on the “great job” they were doing, Thompson turned and walked towards the ramp.

Then, says Thompson, the following happened:

[The first gate agent] yelled, “I have the authority to refuse you boarding.” He then ran in front of me down the ramp as I kept walking. Once he got halfway down the ramp he turned around and told me to stop and that I was not allowed to get on the plane. I was without words at this point but felt like I was in a verbally abusive situation. So I began to capture the situation on video with my phone.

As he walked towards me and past me, he stated to me, “You’re not allowed to go in here. That’s a closed jetway. I’m calling the police.” Then he told the two gate agents, “Call DPS [Department of Public Safety]. Call DPS.” I then turned around, walked out of the ramp, back into the terminal and sat on the terminal chairs. I told my business partner to go on to Nashville and I’d try to get there when I could.

Waiting

Thompson then waited three hours to speak to a supervisor, who told him that he was not going to be able to fly that day. He offered Thompson a standby ticket to Nashville for the following day.

And Thompson asks: “Was such escalation necessary?”

He used our contact information for American Airlines to complain to higher-ranking customer service executives, but the response he received supported the gate agent:

As you may know, according to the Federal Aviation Regulations under our Contract of Carriage, we will deny boarding to any passenger who may pose a threat to the comfort and/or safety of other passengers or employees. I have reviewed our records and they show that our station manager supported the recommendation to deny your travel on this flight. These decisions are made for the safety of all passengers. For that reason we uphold the decision.

American Airlines’ conditions of carriage indicate that

American may refuse to transport you, or may remove you from your flight at any point, for one or several reasons, including but not limited to …

  • Refuse to obey instructions from any flight crew member
  • Engage in any action, voluntary or involuntary, that might jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or any of its occupants.
The bad news

So unfortunately for Thompson, who describes himself as an “upstanding citizen,” this provision allows American Airlines to unilaterally refuse service to any passenger who disobeys its personnel. All airlines’ contracts of carriage or similar legal documents contain such provisions.

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Thompson then asked our advocacy team for assistance in getting a refund for the flight he wasn’t allowed to take. But when we reached out to American Airlines, we learned that Thompson disobeyed a crew member’s orders and walked down a closed jetway after being told he was not flying. So we can’t assist him.

We can only advise air passengers to comply with airline personnel directions at all times, no matter how unpleasantly you think the employee is behaving, because they have the right to ground you if you don’t — and they will, as numerous cases earlier this year have shown.

Was American Airlines correct to prevent Mike Thompson from boarding his flight?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Elliott.org. Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

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