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Have You Been Bullied on a Plane?


By now, everyone in the world knows the story of Dr. David Dao, the physician who was forcibly dragged off United Airlines Flight 3411 at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on April 9. Video of Dr. Dao’s ejection has triggered worldwide outrage. United’s stock value has plummeted. Dao is “lawyering up” to demand damages.

In the Wake of Such Obvious Mistreatment, What Are Dao’s Legal Options?

Most commentators say his chances for recovery are excellent. But what about you – what would happen if you suffered serious mistreatment or injury in “the friendly skies”?

First of all, know that the law is different in the air than on the ground. Crew members have the rights to manage passengers that only apply to airlines. Rule 25 of the Contract for Carriage, “Denied Boarding Compensation,” allows an airline with an overbooking problem to overrule a passenger’s ticket.

The question in Dr. Dao’s case is: Did security cross the line into abusive treatment? Remember that a civil suit would be a jury trial, and the vast majority of prospective jury members would be sympathetic to Dao’s mistreatment.

Passengers Have Rights

By law, passengers enjoy specific rights laid out for air travelers by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the European Economic Community. But these rules lack teeth – they are vague about legal compensation.

When you are bumped from a flight, the airline may owe you compensation. However, there are several things to consider:

  • If the airline can get you to your destination within an hour of your existing flight’s scheduled arrival time, it owes you no compensation.
  • If the airline can arrange a flight on another airline, it must pay all the expenses that the second airline assesses.
  • If anyone on a flight – crew members or other passengers – lays hands on you, that may constitute assault. You may press charges or file a claim for compensation, but know that, without corroborating video or eyewitnesses, like Dr. Dao had, your case may not be persuasive.

There are usually two sides to these stories. For every instance of a passenger being obviously mistreated, there are stories of passengers who get out of line or behave in a way that confuses crew members or other passengers. Such behavior may justify removal from a plane. Every case is different, and many are not covered by the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

At 30,000 feet, all kinds of unpredictable situations can occur. Airlines are granted extra-legal leeway to keep passengers safe. But they do not have a blank check to cause you injury.