The Limited Rights Of Airline Passengers:

If you’re taking a plane to go on holiday this summer, will you pay close attention to the safety instructions given by the cabin crew before take-off? Possibly not, if you’ve heard it all many times before. As the Daily Telegraph’s travel writer, Lizzie Porter, has noted, airline staff are not legally required to oblige people on board to take notice of their announcements, though they “can intervene if rowdy passengers are preventing others from listening”. Porter suggests it makes good sense to be familiar with the action you should take take in the event of an emergency and to check, for example whether there is really a life jacket under your seat. She quotes George Hobica, the founder of, who told the Huffington Post that “A plane might make several trips in a day, during any one of which a passenger could take a life jacket as a souvenir”.

Professor Robert Bor, an aviation clinical pyschologist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, has acknowledged on “Sky Library”that there is a lack of awareness among many passengers as to why certain procedures should be followed: “Most people have little understanding as to why they shouldn’t stand up until the seat belt sign has been switched off”. He agrees that, because flying has become so routine, the airlines need to find more effective ways of delivering their messages – not least because research has shown that 40% of passengers don’t want to be informed about risk and safety since they’d really prefer not to be on the plane at all and are suppressing their anxieties.

Bor’s colleague on Sky Library, the aviation consultant John Barrass, considers that the challenge airlines face is to minimise the threat posed by recalcitrant passengers and engage with them in promoting and enhancing safety. He refers to an occasion when he was on a flight descending to Los Angeles airport: “Even while the cabin crew were reminding passengers not to switch on their mobile phones, I looked around and saw that many people were already busy sending texts to announce their arrival”.

This reluctance to comply with the rules can sometimes result in airlines taking extreme action. A recent case reported by the Guardian on 9th May involved a “wealthy-looking woman with a Louis Vuitton handbag” seated in an exit row who was removed from an Air New Zealand flight en route from Wellington to Auckland because she refused to watch an air safety video or read an instruction card handed to her and put her fingers in her ears to indicate she had no intention of listening.

The most notorious recent episode occurred in April 2017 when a Vietnamese-American doctor, David Dao, suffered concussion, a broken nose and lost two front teeth while being forcibly removed from a United Airlines plane by Chicago Department of Aviation police due to his refusal to give up his seat to a crew member who would be accompanying the flight but not working on it. In the opinion of the Fox News legal analyst, Andrew Napolitano, Dao had paid for the ticket, was in his seat and had every right to stay there. However, Timothy Ravich, an aviation law professor at the University of Central Florida, has pointed out that passenger rights are limited under the “contract of carriage” system and that airlines have the authority and power to remove people against their will if they choose to do so.

According to the Sun journalist, Becky Pemberton, there are many situations in which you can be “booted off” a flight. Among them (she asserts): American Airlines gives its staff the freedom to eject passengers who smell strongly; Delta Airlines may refuse people who are so overweight that they can’t fasten their seatbelt; Jet2 staff will not allow anyone on board wearing t-shirts displaying offensive language. A group of 18 women on their way to a “hen party” in Magaluf were apparently kicked off a Jet2 plane for that reason.

Other examples: A passenger forced off a Ryanair flight from Rome to Milan because they refused to move their metre-long toy crocodile which was blocking an emergency exit (The Metro); another who attempted to take a squirrel onto a Frontier Airlines flight to Cleveland (The Daily Beast); a third because they berated a Donald Trump supporter on a plane going from Baltimore to Seattle ( Daily Mail); a fourth who complained vociferously when she was put next to a mother with a crying baby”(The Sun): a fifth who “launched into a tirade” about being seated between two fat people on a United Airlines flight from Las Vegas to Newark NJ ( News).

Nevertheless, the latest UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) statistics show that despite the number of departures from Britain’s airports increasing by 8.9% between 2016 -2018, the number of disruptive passenger incidents has remained relatively stable: 415 in 2016, 417 in 2017 and 413 in 2018.

Filed under: Travel | Posted on May 21st, 2019 by Colin D Gordon

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