Robert Zuercher and his fiancee were flying from Cancun, Mexico, to Cleveland for a somber occasion. His grandmother had died, and they were attending her funeral. But they say Frontier Airlines added to their grief when they were kicked off their flight without explanation — or compensation.
Zuercher wants to know if Frontier should cover the last-minute replacement flight they had to book on another airline so he could get to the funeral. That’s an interesting question, and one that we get fairly regularly. It’s several questions, actually.
- How does an airline determine if you should be removed from a flight?
- Are you entitled to any compensation when an airline kicks you off the plane?
- Can you stop an airline from removing you from a flight?
I’ll have all the answers in this story. I’ll also tell you how Zuercher and his fiancee fared after my advocacy team tried to mediate their case.
Here’s how they got removed from the Frontier flight
So what happened to Zuercher?
He and his fiancee live in the Cleveland suburbs and were on vacation in Mexico when his grandmother passed away. They paid another $100 each for a “stretch” seat with a little extra legroom. For the couple, it was worth the extra money to have a little more space and contemplate the difficult moments ahead as they lay Zuercher’s grandmother to rest.
“Before the plane was even fully boarded, the flight attendant moved someone next to us that didn’t pay to sit in one of the better seats,” he says.
Zuercher thought the free upgrade granted to the other passenger was unfair. So he asked one of the flight attendants if he could get his $100 upgrade fee refunded. And that’s when things went sideways.
“What?” the flight attendant replied facetiously. “You don’t have a seat?”
Zuercher said of course he did, but repeated that he thought allowing someone who hadn’t paid for an upgrade to sit in a stretch seat was unfair to those who did.
“If you don’t like it, you can get off the plane,” she said.
And then things really went off the runway …
His fiancee couldn’t believe the exchange. So she asked for the flight attendant’s name.
“I don’t have to tell you my name,” the flight attendant snapped.
Then she removed her name tag.
“At that point, we had given up since we had only been on the flight for five minutes and just wanted to go home,” recalls Zuercher.
But the flight attendant wasn’t done with the couple.
“The next thing we know, she’s talking to the pilot. And moments later, they escorted us off the plane,” he says. “We were not intoxicated, and we never cussed or raised our voices. We just asked a question — and got kicked off the plane for it.”
Frontier accused them of being “disruptive” and said they were on their own as far as getting back to Cleveland was concerned.
But they still had a funeral to attend. Finally, an understanding Frontier ticket agent offered to put Zuercher and his fiancee on a flight the next morning, but that was too late. The couple flew to Kansas City on another Frontier flight and then spent an extra $1,300 on a last-minute flight on Delta to get back to Cleveland.
Interestingly, Zuercher spoke with a Frontier flight attendant on the Kansas City flight about his expulsion. She asked about the flight attendant’s name, which Zuercher had managed to obtain despite her efforts to remain anonymous.
“She knew exactly who this flight attendant was and said that she had already written her up for her attitude on a previous flight,” he says. “So obviously, there is an issue with this flight attendant.”
Did they deserve to get kicked off the flight?
What did Zuercher and his fiancee do to deserve getting kicked off the flight? Probably nothing. Simply asking for a refund for your upgrade is no reason to remove a passenger.
Or is it?
While onboard the aircraft, federal law requires that you follow crewmember instructions. Specifically,
14 CFR 125.328 Prohibition on Crew Interference
No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently tightened the rule to impose stricter penalties on anyone who interferes with the duties of a flight crew.
Oh, and before you say, “But this happened in Mexico!” — they have similar rules about interference with a flight crew. (Besides, U.S. airlines operate under American laws — specifically, 14 CFR Part 121 — regardless of their origin or destination.)
Here’s the problem: These rules have been widely interpreted as meaning you must “obey” all instructions of the flight crew. And somewhere along the line, airline crewmembers have come to believe that they hold absolute power on the aircraft, and that even talking back to a flight attendant constitutes interference.
I asked Frontier for its side of the story. I was curious about the flight attendant’s version of events. Although Frontier answered my query — and I’ll get to that in a moment — it did not provide a detailed rebuttal.
It’s clear that the flight attendant believed Zuercher’s request for a refund constituted interference with a flight crew. She spoke with the pilot, who has the authority to remove the passengers, and he did. (Here’s why you shouldn’t accept your airline’s apology.)
What are the airline passenger removal policies?
Airlines may remove you from a flight for many reasons. Those are found in the contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline. Although no two contracts are exactly the same, they have some similarities.
Here are some of the reasons for which an airline might kick you off a flight:
- If you’re wearing improper clothing, like a T-shirt with an offensive logo, or you’re barefoot
- If you smell bad.
- If you’re high or drunk.
- If you can’t sit in your seat with a seatbelt fastened.
But what about offensive behavior? Airlines are far less clear about what constitutes “interference” with its flight crews. Every airline has internal policies, which they do not release to consumer advocates. However, I’ve received enough cases from readers to get a pretty good idea. (Related: Removed from a Delta flight — but it doesn’t know why.)
Don’t ignore the crew
If you sleep through the in-flight safety briefing, as this passenger apparently did, then you might find yourself on the wrong side of the cabin door. (This passenger appealed his expulsion and received a genuine apology and a voucher.)
Don’t fight with another passenger
This traveler got into an argument with another passenger over a dog. Then she argued with a flight attendant. The result? An attendant sent her packing.
And never argue with a flight attendant
Look, I’ve had too many cases where someone made the mistake of arguing with a crewmember, often about the smallest things, like taking pictures on the aircraft. Some flight attendants — not all of them — believe they are the absolute rulers of the cabin and that even the smallest slight justifies an expulsion.
What rights do passengers have when they are removed from a flight?
You have fewer rights than you might think when you’re kicked off a plane.
Most passengers assume that being kicked off a flight means you are entitled to denied boarding compensation. That’s incorrect. Denied boarding, or “bumping,” normally happens when an airline sells more tickets than there are seats.
Under federal regulations, an airline can legally deny you boarding (it’s called an “involuntary denied boarding” situation) when it overbooks the flight. Here’s more information on your rights when you’re denied boarding. But this kind of denial happens before boarding starts.
Removing a passenger after boarding is another matter. Under the Transparency Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe Act, an airline may not deny boarding to a revenue passenger or involuntarily remove that passenger from the aircraft if the passenger checked in before the check-in deadline and their ticket has been scanned.
However, there is an exception for passengers who are deemed a security threat or engage in behavior that is obscene, disruptive, or otherwise unlawful. And it’s also a regulatory gray area. Do expelled passengers deserve denied boarding compensation? Normally, the answer is no. How about a refund of their fare? In my experience, sometimes — but not always.
Bottom line: If your airline removes you from a flight because it says you’ve misbehaved, you can’t count on getting anything — not even a refund of your fare.
Can you stop an airline from kicking you off a plane?
Could Zuercher have prevented this from happening? Possibly.
Arguing with a flight attendant during boarding is almost always a bad idea, unless the crewmember is doing something that’s obviously illegal. And if that’s happening, you should report the attendant to the lead flight attendant or pilot.
So Zuercher could have waited until the flight ended and then reached out to Frontier. I publish the names, numbers and email addresses of Frontier’s executives on my consumer advocacy website.
But could Zuercher have appealed to the pilot while onboard and reversed the decision to expel him and his fiancee? Maybe.
I’ve mediated dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of cases where someone was removed from a flight in my three decades as a consumer advocate. In maybe 10 percent of those cases — usually, there was a simple misunderstanding — there was an appeal to a higher authority. The passenger was allowed to stay on the plane.
But in the rest of the cases, the process was straightforward and arbitrary. The flight attendant spoke with a supervisor — usually the purser (chief flight attendant) or the pilot — and they called security to escort the passenger from the plane.
And in those cases, no amount of protesting would help. You’re off the plane.
If your offense is serious, you could also be met by airport security or police, who will arrest you. However, this is extremely rare for readers of this site. Their “offense,” which is limited to verbal jousting with the cabin crew, is not something that can land them in jail.
So unfortunately, once the decision is made, you can’t talk yourself out of getting kicked off a plane.
But what did Frontier have to say about this incident?
Frontier responds: “This is not the type of service we strive to provide”
Zuercher requested a refund, but Frontier turned him down. He appealed to one of our executive contacts at Frontier, which yielded this response. (Bear with me — this may have been generated by an AI or written by someone for whom English is not a first language.)
Kindly confirm you that we have taken the time to read your message and are deeply sorry that you had encountered such [a] situation. Our goal is to offer a pleasant travel experience for all our passengers. We apologize if we have not met your expectations. I also extend my sincere condolence for your lost [sic], respectfully.
Your description of the customer service displayed by our representatives is concerning, and I can only assure you this is not the type of service we strive to provide. I’m sorry that happened to you.
Frontier wants you to have a great experience when you fly with us, so it’s disappointing when we receive reports of anything less than that. I’m grateful you brought this to our attention, so we can share your feedback with our Cancun and Cleveland group who will follow up with their team to ensure your experience is not repeated
However, Frontier again refused to refund the cost of the extra flight.
Is that Frontier’s final answer?
I checked with Frontier to get its side of the story. Here’s what it had to say.
It does appear these customers were removed from the flight based on disruptive behavior. We did offer to get them home the next day but they needed to get home more quickly and so we put them on a flight to Kansas City and they made the rest of the journey on another airline.
As an FYI – row 1 seating on this flight was fully booked and all customers who were assigned row 1 paid for the upgraded seating. It is a flight attendant’s prerogative to move customers’ seats as necessary and to request that customers be removed from the aircraft if the flight attendant feels threatened or uncomfortable.
We have already reimbursed these customers for the seat upgrade they had purchased and given them vouchers in the amount of $150 per person.
We’re unable to offer anything further on this one.
Who’s telling the truth?
I asked Zuercher what he thought of that response.
“It’s a lie,” he told me. “We asked the person who was put next to us if they had paid for that seat or any upgraded seat and they said no. They were supposed to be in row five.”
He says he feels defeated.
“I spent a lot of money to get home for a funeral and because a flight attendant was having a bad day and then lied I’m getting screwed,” he added.
I agree that there’s something wrong with Frontier’s final statement.
The airline first apologized — deeply apologized — but then said its crewmember did nothing wrong.
Who is telling the truth? I have no idea (but maybe you do, so I’ll include a poll in a minute).
I think there’s an important takeaway for the rest of us. While most flight attendants are professional and polite, a few are petty tyrants. When you anger these airborne autocrats, federal law and their employers almost always support them, no matter how wrong they are.
If you have a problem with their behavior, maybe it’s best to wait until you’ve landed to say something.