A Look At The Laws: What Is Required When You’re Denied Boarding

There have been a lot of discussions concerning the forceful removal of a passenger from the United Express flight at Chicago O’Hare airport bound for Louisville, Kentucky.  One of the discussions that has come up is the amount of compensation that United was willing to, and had offered to the passengers.  Notably, people have been citing the FAA regulations in 14 CFR Part 250 and erroneously stating that United Airlines was limited by law on how much compensation it can offer passengers who are involuntarily giving up their seat.

The regulations also address requirements for passengers who volunteer their seats.  The terms, including the amount of financial obligation, that airlines must offer to passengers who are voluntarily giving up their seat require that the carrier disclose all material restrictions, including but not limited to administrative fees, advance purchase or capacity restrictions, and blackout dates applicable to the offer before the passenger decides whether to give up his or her confirmed reserved space on the flight in exchange for the free or reduced rate transportation.  In other words, the airline must be clear and honest when offering compensation to volunteers.

The airline, in the case of a passenger volunteering her or her seat, is not obligated by the law to provide any specific compensation or re-accommodation, as the passenger and the airline have come to a mutual agreement that is satisfactory to both parties.

Only when denied boarding becomes involuntary, which includes forceable deplaning, does the law stipulate terms that must be met by the airline, including monetary compensation.  Many websites and articles, including this Atlantic article are erroneously stating that there is a $1350 dollar cap for compensating the denied passenger.

Title 14 CFR §250.5 outlines the terms and conditions for airlines (with airplanes of 30 seats or more) on how they are to compensate passengers who were involuntarilydenied boarding.  This schedule of fees and conditions are mandatory for any passenger who was involuntarily denied getting on the flight.  However, the dollar amounts are not a limit on what a carrier can pay, only what the carrier MUST pay at a minimum by law.

United Airlines must compensate any passenger who was denied from being on United Express flight 3411 by using the guidelines of §250.5.  If United Airlines chooses to further compensate the passengers, they are not bound by the law and are free to increase the passengers’ compensation beyond what is required by the regulation.

The FAA regulations in Part 250 – Oversales, set the terms and conditions for when denied boarding takes place.  The articles citing it as an intrusion to the free-market by limiting passenger compensation are ignorant of the intent and scope of the regulation.  The regulation sets up terms and conditions, including a sliding scale for monetary compensation, that protects and benefits the traveling public.  Without this regulation, airlines would be free to deny boarding to anyone, and do so without any required compensation or re-accommodation.  All large airlines have to compensate and re-accommodate passengers as stipulated in regulation, at a minimum.  The regulation permits additional compensation at the airline’s discretion, and it is only the airline, i.e. the marketplace, that sets that cap.

David Williams is an aviation historian and former airline pilot living in New York City. 

Photo by NYCAviation Senior Editor Ben Granucci. 

About the Author

David J. Williams
David Williams, an aviation safety expert and aviation historian, living in New York City.



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