Airline incidents spark debate over passenger rights

Sparked by an explosive video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged from a plane, a series of incidents captured on cellphone video showing passenger conflicts with airline staff are raising concerns about travelers' rights and airline safety practices.

The incidents are often a clash of passengers' rights, airline regulations and the high-pressure world of airline operations. Last week, a video gained national attention showing a Delta passenger who had an urgent need to use the lavatory just before the plane was taking off, which resulted in him being asked to leave the plane.

And now, the issue has captured the attention of Congress.

A U.S. House transportation committee hearing on Tuesday will examine U.S. airline customer service policies, looking at “what can be done to improve the flying experience for American travelers.” United CEO Oscar Munoz is scheduled to testify, along with executives from American, Southwest and Alaska Airlines and a Consumers Union representative.

On Thursday, a Senate aviation subcommittee hearing will “explore consumer protections and the state of airline travel.”

No small issue

Some 2.5 million passengers a day flew in the United States in 2016, equivalent to the population of a major U.S. city taking to the skies. The numbers also mean even if one out of a million passengers have a tumultuous incident on a flight, that would still be two passengers affected every day.

“The incidents we’re seeing I think are passengers letting us have a bird’s-eye view to things they thought were not fair,” said FlyersRights.org founder Kate Hanni.

Meanwhile, flight attendants, pilots and gate agents are under pressure to keep flights departing on time while ensuring safety and security in this post 9/11 era.

Jonathan Stern, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney in the Schnader law firm represents airlines in cases where they are sued for removing passengers for reasons the passengers allege are improper. Stern points to federal aviation regulation that says interfering with the duties of a crew member violates federal law.

“You’ve got to listen to the crew members on an airplane. We’re putting 100, 200, 300 people on this aluminum tube and somebody’s got to be in charge of that,” he said. “Things can get out of hand really quickly when cabin crews are not obeyed.”

Stern said in the cases he has handled, crew members have “shared concern about losing control of the cabin. And it can happen really quickly, and so it is really important to maintain order.”

“The quarters are tighter on the airplane than they used to be,” he said. “It’s easy for it to become more like a bar or a restaurant rather than flying in this aluminum tube at 500 miles per hour.”

Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, said the United dragging incident “was really a lack of judgment” by the airline. “That was really uncalled for.”

In the case of the Delta passenger who had to use the restroom as the flight was waiting in line for takeoff, he said, “the fact of the matter is, all of us have been in a situation where for one reason or another, we gotta go and we gotta go now.”

However, “I get the impression that air crews are under a lot of pressure these days to meet their schedule and be on time,” Kidd said.

Kidd said if a passenger is “angry, emotional, upset,” flight attendants may “not want him on the plane at all…. It’s kind of a system that’s running at the red-line all the time, so you just don’t want to be the person to push them over the edge.”

“We advise passengers not to argue the point,” he said. “If the flight attendant doesn’t want you on the plane, fine. There’s another flight, there’s another day.”

But FlyersRights.org’s Hanni said she thinks the Federal Aviation Administration regulation language “needs to be tightened up so an airline passenger knows exactly what they can and cannot do inside a commercial aircraft and what their rights are.”

Delta's domestic contract of carriage says it can refuse to transport passengers for reasons including "disorderly" conduct, or when a passenger "fails to obey the instruction of any member of the flight crew," or "when the passenger's conduct creates an unreasonable risk of offense or annoyance to other passengers."

One concern is the potential abuse of the power that crews have to remove passengers from planes.

To that, Stern said, “I think we have some pretty darn good examples in the last couple of weeks of how that can be checked and monitored with passengers pulling out their phones.”