Know Your Rights Before Your Flights: ‘It’s NOT a Democracy’

2017 has become the year of airline passenger disputes gone viral. But do the videos and photos capture bad airline behavior, bad passenger behavior or something in between? The in-between is where there may be lessons consumers can learn.

Nearly all of the disputes stem from a disconnect between what passengers believe their rights to be and what their rights actually are, said Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate, author and travel journalist.

“We’re not dealing with common sense when it comes to airlines,” he said. “The way the rules work on the plane are different than on the ground, it’s not a democracy.”

We asked travel experts to share their takes on six recent controversies. Follow this list of don’ts to help you make it to your destination without becoming a headline.

Do NOT ignore the fine print

On March 26, two teenage girls traveling from Denver to Minneapolis were told they could not board their United flight because they were wearing leggings. A third girl wearing leggings changed clothes before she was allowed on. Following backlash, United clarified that the girls had been flying using employee passes, which require those passengers to follow a company dress code that does not allow leggings.

Experts say: Most airlines don’t have specific dress codes for regular passengers but the lesson is the same, Elliot said: Make sure you read the fine print for your ticket to be aware of any restrictions.

George Hobica, founder of, recommends always finding out airline regulations, but especially when using free tickets.

“As a former airline employee, I have suffered through not being allowed to board,” he said. “If you’re flying on a free pass, you should inform yourself or whoever gives [you the pass] should inform you of company regulations. I would err on the side of dressing up. Up your sartorial game a bit.”

Do NOT refuse to get off the plane

There have been several incidents this year regarding passengers being forced off planes despite having purchased tickets. Perhaps the most notorious example was the removal of Dr. David Dao, a Kentucky doctor who was violently dragged off a United flight from Chicago to Louisville after declining to give up his seat for United employees.

Experts say: United has apologized for the way the situation was handled, but the incident brought to many customers’ attention that airlines do under federal law have the right to bump you from your seat. The easiest way to handle this is to just go ahead and give up your seat when asked, all of the experts said.

Airlines bump customers for a variety of reasons, including needing to transport employees, accommodate an air marshal or because the flight was overbooked. Customers may be chosen to give up their seats based on a variety of reasons, including check-in time.

“Even if you think you’re in the right, and you may be, if you refuse that request you’re in violation of federal law,” Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor, said. You can ask for more money to give up your seat, if you choose to do so. Following the incident, United announced it would offer up to $10,000 for customers who volunteer to give up seats on overbooked flights.

Bonus: Read our explainer: What to do when you get bumped

Do NOT start a riot

When Spirit Airlines canceled at least nine flights out of Fort Lauderdale on May 8 after labor negotiations with its pilots failed, angry customers in the Spirit terminal nearly started a riot. Once physical violence began, three Long Islanders were arrested.

On Monday night, May 8, 2017, three Long

Experts say: “Passengers don’t have a right to riot but they should have a right to be compensated in certain circumstances,” Hobica said.

You’re entitled to either a refund or a seat on another flight from the airline, but not much else. Some larger airlines in the U.S. have interline agreements that allow them to schedule customers on another airline. Greenberg said it may be worth checking whether the airline for your next flight has this policy in place (Spirit does not).

“The price you pay for flying an airline without an agreement is you may be sleeping at an airport,” he said. Elliott also advised checking the status of your flight before you leave. It may not help you avoid a canceled plane, but you won’t have to spend as much time at the airport.  

Do NOT ship your pet (unless absolutely necessary)

Simon, a giant rabbit from Worcestershire, England, expected to become the biggest in the world, was shipped via a United Airlines flight to Chicago on April 26, but he never made it to his new owner. He was found dead in his carrier in the cargo hold when the plane arrived, though his breeder said he was in good health when he left.

Experts say: While Simon’s cause of death isn’t clear, all three experts agreed that shipping a pet in the cargo hold is a big risk. “It’s a very dangerous place,” Hobica said. “Many animals perish every year.”

According to the Department of Transportation’s animal death statistics, 136 animals died on flights between January 2012 through February 2017. “It’s tragic and 100 percent preventable,” Elliott said.

Do NOT bring a stroller on-board

One April incident highlighted what parents can and can’t bring with them. In a viral video, an American Airlines flight attendant on a plane from San Francisco to Dallas, is shown yelling at a tearful mother with a baby and another passenger who stepped in to help. According to witnesses, the woman tried to bring a stroller on the plane and the attendant roughly grabbed it.

Experts say: Do your research and check the airline’s carry-on rules before you get to the gate. “There the passenger was at fault,” Hobica said. “Do a little homework. If this passenger had, she would have seen strollers are checked.”

Greenberg said the flight attendant could have handled this situation in a more tactful way, but the lesson for consumers is if a flight attendant tells you something won’t fit, don’t escalate the situation by fighting with them, just listen.

Do NOT use someone else’s ticket

On May 3, a Delta Air Lines customer posted a video to YouTube of his family in a heated dispute with flight attendants over whether his two-year-old could sit in a seat originally purchased for one of his other children who was on a separate flight. The entire family was ultimately kicked off the flight.

Experts say: For security reasons, you can’t take a seat if your name isn’t on the ticket – even if the situation seems innocent enough. That’s standard policy. “Basically, you cannot pull a switcheroo,” Hobica said. Hobica said the father should have purchased a separate seat for his young child in the first place.

Do NOT bring this stuff with you

From gas masks to brass knuckles, click here for a list of things you do NOT want to bring to the airport.