Anything can happen on a plane. Anything did happen to Rita Auth when she boarded a recent flight from Dallas to Tucson.
“The previous passenger had urinated on my assigned seat and the crew failed to notice it,” she says. “I found out by sitting down and feeling the moisture on my pants.”
I’m not writing about this case for the shock value, although I’ll admit there is some. I’m not even going to mention the name of the airline (not too hard to guess) because I think every airline would have handled this one in exactly the same way.
I am writing about this because there’s an important takeaway for all of us: We need to know what we can ask for when something goes wrong, and where to look for guidance.
First, let’s hear from Auth. She picks up her story after discovering the urine-soaked seat.
The flight was full, so another seat cushion had to be brought in from maintenance, which delayed the flight about 20 minutes. I was given a clean seat bottom, blankets to sit on and the offer to have my clothes cleaned on arrival. But those are the only accommodations that were made.
I wrote to [the airline’s] customer service department to complain and insisted that management take some responsibility for this disgusting incident. All I received in return was a letter assuring me that they have strict cleanliness standards and that this issue was beyond their control.
The letter ended with this quote, a ridiculous understatement to say the least:
“Mrs. Auth, again, I’m sorry that the enjoyment of your flight may have been diminished as a result.”
Airline contracts and passenger entitlements
Look, I’ve sat in a seat that had just been vomited on. I have been vomited on by another passenger -— and I feel for her. But there’s only so much an airline can control.
The key to determining what you’re entitled to is the legal agreement between you and the airline, and, unfortunately, no airline contract addresses the cleanliness of its seats. There are state and federal health regulations that might apply. Since the peed-on seat was immediately removed, Auth might have had some trouble filing a complaint. Even if she’d been successful, it wouldn’t have increased her compensation. (Related: Biohazard on board! What to do when disgusting things happen on planes.)
What’s she owed? Her airline fixed the problem, offered her blankets and took care of her dry cleaning bills — then it apologized in writing. Common sense tells you it did almost everything it could, short of refunding her ticket.
If this had happened anywhere else (say, at a restaurant or on a cruise ship) then that would be enough. True, unlike those places, you’re confined to a pressurized aluminum tube for 1 ½ hours — but the airline fulfilled its contract to her in every way. (Here’s your ultimate guide to booking an airline ticket.)
So how did it all end? A few days ago, Auth sent me an update.
My daughter suggested I call customer relations to speak to a manager, which I dreaded because of the inevitable hold time. I had time today and waited one hour on hold before I was finally able to speak to the right person.
[A representative] credited 10,000 miles to my account and apologized for the incident. She also seemed genuinely concerned.