If an airline kicks you off a flight, what does it owe you? The answer is written into U.S. federal regulations. But for Nic Hnastchenko, who was removed from a recent Delta Air Lines flight, it is very much an open question.
And it’s a question I will answer.
Actually, it’s an answer that challenges the definitions of “involuntary denied boarding” in air travel — a clunky term used by the U.S. Department of Transportation to describe anyone removed against their will (also called bumping).
But to get to our answer, we have to ask a few other questions about air travel rights, including:
- What are the denied boarding compensation rules for domestic flights?
- What does an airline owe you when it removes you from a flight?
- What do airlines keep a secret about denied-boarding compensation?
First, though, let’s find out how Delta kicked Hnastchenko off its flight.
How Delta removed a passenger from one of its flights
Hnastchenko had a ticket on Delta flight 2049 from Minneapolis to Chicago on August 14.
“Delta scanned and boarded me,” he recalls.
But when he got to his assigned seat, there was someone already sitting there. A crewmember checked the flight manifest and discovered the problem: Hnastchenko was not on the list.
(A manifest is a list of passenger names along with their airline-specific ticket numbers. It often includes other details like the airline, flight number, and number of other passengers traveling in the party.)
The Delta crewmember demanded that he leave the aircraft at once.
“They threatened to call the police if I did not deplane,” he recalls. “It was very confusing.”
Disappointed and embarrassed, Hnastchenko found his way to the Delta customer service counter. There, an agent informed him that his ticket was for the next day.
But Hnastchenko says that’s untrue, and he has the ticket to prove it. It says August 14.
Delta flew him to Chicago the next day without incident. But Hnastchenko says Delta bumped him and deserves denied boarding compensation under federal regulations.
Delta doesn’t see it that way.
Air travel rights: Is this enough compensation for removing him from his flight?
After Hnastchenko complained to Delta, the airline sent him a form apology and 7,000 Delta frequent flier miles. That’s worth between $78 and $80, based on an industry-standard valuation of slightly over one cent per mile. (But as they say, your mileage may vary.)
Hnastchenko was livid.
“At a minimum, I would like my flight refunded,” he says. “However, I believe I’m entitled to maximum compensation of $1,500, in cash — not Delta points — because their mistake forced me to spend another night in Minneapolis and an eight-hour delay, on top of the already four-hour delayed flight.”
I agree with him: 7,000 miles feels like an insult. Sure, Delta didn’t drag Hnastchenko off the flight like David Dao. But it’s not exactly the “keep climbing” attitude that Delta aspires to.
It can do better.
Or can it?
What are the denied boarding compensation rules for airline passengers?
The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates denied boarding compensation rules for domestic flights. The rules are meant to ensure fair treatment when someone is removed from a flight. But they don’t apply to all passengers.
- Only passengers holding confirmed reservations on a flight are eligible for denied boarding compensation.
- Under government regulations, airlines have to inform passengers of their rights to federal flight compensation and the criteria for boarding priority.
- The denied boarding compensation rules only apply to U.S. flights. If your origin and destination are both outside the U.S., there are other rules (notably Europe’s EC 261). For more on this, check out my ultimate guide to denied boarding compensation.
Passengers denied boarding are entitled to a rebooking on the next available flight to their destination on that carrier, a full refund of their unused fees and they may be entitled to meals and hotel accommodations if they are forced to stay overnight.
You can find the actual rule in 14 CFR § 250.5 in the Code of Federal Regulations.
There’s also this: After the Dao incident, in which a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight, Congress passed the Transparency Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe Act. The law prohibits airlines from denying boarding or removing passengers from flights unless there is a safety, security or health risk, or the passenger is behaving in a disruptive or unlawful manner. It also bars the air carrier from bumping that passenger from the aircraft once the passenger has checked in for the flight and had his or her ticket scanned.
Bottom line: These denied boarding rules are narrow and limited to ticketed passengers.
But will they apply to the Delta flight compensation Hnastchenko is seeking for his flight?
First, let’s find out how much the airline owes him.
What does an airline owe you when it removes you from a flight?
For domestic flights, here’s what an airline owes you under federal regulations:
- If the airline arranges alternate transportation that gets you to your destination within one to two hours of your originally scheduled arrival time, you get nothing.
- For delays of two to four hours, the airline is required to pay you 200 percent of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $775.
- If your denied boarding delays you by more than four hours, you are entitled to federal flight compensation of 400 percent of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $1,550.
These rules rarely come into play because airlines do everything they can to avoid a denied boarding situation. In the last three months of 2022 (the last month for which numbers are available), domestic airlines denied boarding to only 3 passengers per 100,000 — a total of 5,984 passengers.
But you can probably already see where this is going.
Delta claims Hnastchenko didn’t have a ticket for the August 14 flight. Therefore, the involuntary denied boarding rules didn’t apply.
Is he out of luck?
What airlines won’t tell you about denied-boarding practices
Here’s what you wouldn’t know about the involuntary denied boarding rules unless you’ve spent three decades advocating airline consumer cases.
Airlines hate these rules.
They want to be able to compensate their passengers any way they please. Which is to say, if you’re a diamond-level elite, it will lavish you with miles, upgrades and maybe even a refund.
If you’re a regular Joe, you get table scraps.
Airlines resent the Department of Transportation for dictating air travel rights in general and refunds specifically. They believe that in a free market, they should be able to make that choice themselves. But airlines’ belief in the free market is limited. When a 9/11 or a pandemic happens, they are happy to embrace big-government socialism and lobby the federal government for generous handouts. (And they do.)
Behind the scenes, Delta — like any domestic airline — was trying to find a way to deny Hnastchenko his denied boarding compensation. In most cases, airlines try to offer lesser compensation in exchange for a passenger “volunteering” to give up their seats.
In Hnastchenko’s case, while the spirit of the law dictated that Delta pay him restitution, the letter of the law gave it an opportunity to turn him down.
But what would happen when Hnastchenko appealed the decision? Let’s find out.
7,000 miles are “not sufficient” Delta flight compensation
Hnastchenko wrote a brief, polite email to Delta, a la the Elliott Method, after it offered him 7,000 miles.
Here’s what he said:
The 7,000 bonus miles are not sufficient compensation for my experience.
It is mandated by the Department of Transportation that involuntary booting from my flight entitles me to cash or check compensation. This is per an April 13, 2021, ruling from the Department of Transportation that you can find attached here.
Sending me miles for an airline that I had an absolutely awful experience with will not suffice, nor is it in compliance with the Department of Transportation ruling that airlines are required to comply with.
Delta has violated multiple instances of Department of Transportation rulings in their service to me, and it is disgraceful. The value of the miles offered is not even one-quarter of the price of my one-way ticket.
But citing DOT regulations did not sway Delta.
Delta: “I am sorry to disappoint you”
The airline responded as you might expect. Here’s its reply to Hnastchenko:
Thank you for taking the time to send your further comments. I recognize your frustration with the events that occurred during this trip and also with the responses. I am really sorry if you disagree with the findings and understand you remain dissatisfied, as this was upsetting experience.
Be assured we have taken your concerns seriously, and this incidents have been reviewed once again with a the correct department. We have tried to express that we are really sorry for the difficulties you experienced when your travel was disrupted. Certainly it is clear from your message that your travel did not go smoothly as I regret we are not able to resolve this matter to your satisfaction.
We try to do our best to provide exceptional service at all times, and I wish our efforts could have change your mind. I would like to reassure you that we have forwarded your concerns to the appropriate leadership team for internal review. You feedback is a vital part of the information we use when making policy revisions of any type. As of this communication, all cases regarding these concerns have been concluded and no additional responses are forthcoming.
I am sorry to disappoint you, as I know this is not the answer you were hoping for. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us, and I hope in time you’ll give us another chance to serve you on your future flight.
I’m republishing the email in its entirety because I want people to find this email when they search for it online and to know that this is a form letter.
Anyway — Hnastchenko was even angrier when he got this email. Which is totally understandable. Who wouldn’t be?
But now it was my turn to get frustrated.
“I can’t be sure what happened”
I needed to know what happened to Hnastchenko, so I asked. So I contacted Delta on October 9.
The airline didn’t respond.
So I contacted Delta again on October 26. Finally, I got an answer:
“We have reviewed this case and while we were not able to fully verify the claim that the customer was involuntarily denied boarding, we have offered another apology and a goodwill gesture,” a spokesman said.
And then I heard from Hnastchenko.
Delta had emailed him, too, with a more detailed explanation.
I can’t be sure what happened on the day you traveled and I’m unable to verify you were involuntarily denied boarding due to an oversale of the flight.
However, I am sorry you had to take another flight and as a gesture of goodwill I will send a check in the amount of $974.
This is equivalent to the cash payment you would’ve received if involuntary denied boarding compensation was due.
“I truly appreciate you taking the time and effort to advocate on my behalf,” he added. “Thanks for all the work you have done!”
I’m so glad we finally got to the bottom of this bumping case. But you’re probably wondering the same thing I am: What kind of glitch was this? If Hnastchenko didn’t have a ticket for that day, how did he get through security? How did Delta let him board a plane?
That’s all I can do. But if you work for Delta’s IT department, or for the Department of Homeland Security, you can pick it up from here.
About this story
This case has been sitting on my desk for weeks. I agonized about taking it because Delta has such a great reputation for customer service. I thought this was just a simple misunderstanding. But when the airline ignored my first inquiry, I became suspicious. My advocacy team and I are happy we could get a refund for Hnastchenko, but we’re troubled by the questions raised by Delta’s response. I researched, fact-checked and wrote this story. My gratitude to Mel Smith and Dwayne Coward, who assisted with the advocacy. Andy Smith and his team edited the story. Aren Elliott produced the video and Dustin Elliott created the art.