A crewmember just ordered me off the plane. Do I have to obey?

United Airlines has been in the news a lot lately and the stories have been disturbing. It’s been so disturbing to reader Janis Dolnick, who has two upcoming flights booked on United, that she wrote to us to ask what rights she has, if any, should she be asked to leave a flight.

It’s a question I wish no one needed to ask, but knowing what responsibility you have to comply if a crewmember asks you to leave a flight you’ve already boarded could save you from more than a late arrival at your destination.

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the number of passengers bumped off flights reached its peak in 1998 and steadily declined until 2014. It climbed back to 515,000 passengers in 2015 (statistics for 2016 have not been added to the table), which is approximately 9 percent of the number of total passengers boarded.

Although some may find this surprising, the DOT does not consider it illegal to overbook a flight:

Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” Passengers are sometimes left behind or “bumped” as a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.

These exceptions include:

  • not complying with the airline’s ticketing or check-in policies;
  • the flight is canceled;
  • the equipment was changed to a smaller aircraft;
  • the aircraft has 60 or fewer seats and the removal of passengers was necessary for weight and balance restrictions;
  • your alternate flight arrives less than one hour after your original flight;
  • you are accommodated in a higher class of service than your original flight.

There are other reasons that you could be asked to leave a plane you have already boarded without being compensated, including:

  • government requisition of space;
  • your refusal to carry identification or submit to person or property search;
  • you appear to be drunk or otherwise impaired;
  • you are clothed in a manner that would be offensive to other passengers;
  • you are barefoot;
  • you refuse to obey a member of the flight crew;
  • your conduct is disorderly, abusive, or violent;
  • you attempt to interfere with any member of the flight crew;
  • or you do something to jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or others on board.

Keep in mind that if you are asked to leave a plane for most of the above reasons you could be arrested.

Each airline is allowed to set its own rules for boarding priority as well as for deciding which passengers would be involuntarily bumped. But the DOT does mandate that the airline must first try to incentivize guests to voluntarily give up their seats. It also sets rules on the minimum amount of compensation a guest must receive if he is bumped:

  • If you arrive at your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, no compensation is given.
  • If you arrive at your destination one to two hours after your original arrival time, you’re entitled to 200% of your one-way fare, with a $675 maximum.
  • If you arrive at your destination more than two hours later, the compensation doubles to a maximum of $1,350.

Each domestic carrier has its own set of rules for boarding and for bumping passengers, and most airlines include the “elite members” of its frequent flier program, but prior to the recent incident, only American Airlines promised not to remove a passenger who has already boarded the plane.

In the days following the United incident at O’Hare in April, Delta Airlines increased the amount of compensation its airport staff is allowed to offer to $10,000 in order to ensure its passengers are willing to give up their seats voluntarily. United Airlines announced that employees must be booked at least 60 minutes prior to boarding, and that it will no longer remove passengers from the plane after they have boarded.

Not surprisingly, United’s list of reasons to remove a passenger from a flight is significantly longer than those of the other airlines.

The short answer to Dolnick’s question is this: If you’ve committed any of the offenses that the DOT has outlined for removing people from a flight, the answer is yes, you should immediately disembark.

If this is merely an overbooking situation and you can’t be late getting to your destination, immediately tell the gate agent. He or she should be able to put you at the bottom of the potential “bump list” if you have a valid reason (“I have to get back to my cats” isn’t a valid reason, but “I have patients to see tomorrow” should be). If you’ve already boarded the plane, you may refuse and give a reason why, but you may also find yourself confronted by airport security.

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