After a passenger was forcibly removed from a 9 April 2017 United Airlines flight out of Chicago O’Hare airport, the airline company became the target of harsh criticism and outrage — and as the story went viral, fake news and rumors spread. Amidst the brouhaha, a Facebook post attributed to a seasoned flyer emerged, making numerous claims about how knowledge of a passenger’s purported rights might have changed the outcome of the situation:

‘If you are asked to leave an airplane after boarding, or if you are not permitted to board the plane, the first thing you should say is “Am I being denied boarding?” The second thing is “give me your written denial of boarding compensation statement”.

Once you do that, the odds are that you’ll get on the plane. If you aren’t boarded, remember that the compensation amount is calculated on the posted one-way fare to your destination, not on what you may have paid for it. They must give that to you in cash. And remember that if they can’t get you out till the next day, they must put you up at a hotel, and provide you with meal vouchers and transportation and toiletries.

If you have been legally denied boarding, don’t accept a flight voucher unless the amount of it is twice the cash compensation you are owed.’

AND

‘If you have been issued a boarding pass, the airline is legally obliged to carry you. There are certain exceptions, but basically, if the plane is going and you have a boarding pass, they CANNOT deny you boarding. Legally. If they do, they must do certain things … The penalties for denied boarding are substantial … They include substitute transport to get you to your destination within 2 hours of your original reservation, on any available flight, PLUS financial compensation in cash (not travel vouchers) handed to you before you leave the gate area.

The author says that requesting a written denial of boarding compensation statement significantly decreases chances of being bumped from a flight after boarding, adding that passengers are entitled to compensation equaling the posted one-way fare. 

These claims came from the Code of Federal Regulations, Section 250.9: “Written explanation of denied boarding compensation and boarding priorities, and verbal notification of denied boarding compensation”:

(a) Every carrier shall furnish passengers who are denied boarding involuntarily from flights on which they hold confirmed reserved space immediately after the denied boarding occurs, a written statement explaining the terms, conditions, and limitations of denied boarding compensation, and describing the carriers’ boarding priority rules and criteria. The carrier shall also furnish the statement to any person upon request at all airport ticket selling positions which are in the charge of a person employed exclusively by the carrier, or by it jointly with another person or persons, and at all boarding locations being used by the carrier.

The statute describes the procedure for overbooked flights:

If a flight is oversold (more passengers hold confirmed reservations than there are seats available), no one may be denied boarding against his or her will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservation willingly, in exchange for compensation of the airline’s choosing. If there are not enough volunteers, other passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with the following boarding priority of (name of air carrier): (In this space the carrier inserts its boarding priority rules or a summary thereof, in a manner to be understandable to the average passenger.)

According to that law, those outside the exempted categories (cancelled flights, noncompliance with boarding procedures, capacity constraints, rejected accommodations, or equivalent service available and offered) are entitled to specific “denied boarding compensation” for domestic flights and international flights. Domestic compensation regulars are as follows:

Passengers traveling between points within the United States (including the territories and possessions) who are denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight are entitled to: (1) No compensation if the carrier offers alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the passenger’s destination or first stopover not later than one hour after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight; (2) 200% of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $675, if the carrier offers alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the passenger’s destination or first stopover more than one hour but less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight; and (3) 400% of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $1,350, if the carrier does not offer alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s destination or first stopover less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight.

0 to 1 hour arrival delay No compensation.
1 to 2 hour arrival delay 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $675).
Over 2 hours arrival delay 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,350).

Except as provided below, the airline must give each passenger who qualifies for involuntary denied boarding compensation a payment by cash or check for the amount specified above, on the day and at the place the involuntary denied boarding occurs. If the airline arranges alternate transportation for the passenger’s convenience that departs before the payment can be made, the payment shall be sent to the passenger within 24 hours. The air carrier may offer free or discounted transportation in place of the cash payment. In that event, the carrier must disclose all material restrictions on the use of the free or discounted transportation before the passenger decides whether to accept the transportation in lieu of a cash or check payment. The passenger may insist on the cash/check payment or refuse all compensation and bring private legal action.

The post also referenced compensation or coverage for incidentals such as food or toiletries, a section we were unable to locate in the relevant CFR passage. But the United Airlines web site page pertaining to flight cancellations and delays (not involuntary denial of boarding) stated:

If we’re unable to book a hotel room for you, we may be able to provide you with reimbursement of overnight accommodations you obtain on your own, including your hotel, ground transportation and meals. In these situations a United airport representative will give you an authorization letter outlining the details for reimbursement, including a maximum allotted dollar amount.

A toiletry kit may be provided if an overnight stay is necessary and we can’t retrieve your checked baggage.

A 2010 travel expert’s column noted that another domestic carrier outlined policies pertaining to toiletries and incidentals in its contract of carriage, including reimbursement. A 2014 news report about passenger rights following a cluster of delays in Newark reiterated involuntary denial of boarding rights, but did not mention incidentals. A lawyer examined general passenger rights during delays and cancellations, asserting that people had a better chance of receiving compensation on international flights than domestic ones:

[S]ome airlines do offer meals, hotels and toiletries if you are delayed overnight. If you are booked on an international flight, the answer [to whether you are entitled to compensation for a delay or cancellation] is also no. Under an international treaty called the Warsaw Convention, an airline is not required to compensate you for inconvenience or damages caused by flight delay as long as it can show:

– that it took all necessary measures to avoid the damage; or
– that it was impossible to take such measures.

You may try to persuade the airline to cover any direct damages caused by the delay (e.g., hotel, toiletries, meals) by referring to Article 19 of the Warsaw Convention, which states: “The Carrier shall be liable for damages occasioned by delay in the transportation by air of passengers, baggage or goods.”

The Facebook post also claims that gate-issued boarding passes carry more weight, legally speaking, than passes on a smartphone or those printed at home. She advises passengers to comply with crew orders, even if they conflict with the law:

Now, here’s the thing about boarding passes. They are documents issued by the airline. Not a QR code on your phone. Not a printout from your home printer. Not an email. It is plausible to me that some smartass gate agent picked the four passengers to bump who didn’t have airline-issued boarding passes. Someone will try to make that case in court. But this is why I don’t check in to my flight early. This is why I don’t board with anything other than the boarding pass printed by the airline at the airport. I want my boarding pass to be a real one, so when the day comes that I am denied boarding, I can claim my $1350 in cash, my first class seat on a competitor’s airline, and my overnight accommodations. Because the penalties for the airline for denied boarding are in fact substantial.’

“And everyone note: always comply with crew orders. Then get everything you are entitled to in compensation.”

CFR 250.9 makes no distinction between types of boarding passes, and neither United, American nor Delta say on their web sites that they will treat mobile boarding passes as different from those obtained at the gate.

Sources:

Bacon, John and Ben Mutzabaugh.   “United Airlines Says Controversial Flight Was Not Overbooked; CEO Apologizes Again.”
    USA Today.   11 April 2017.

Burbank, Linda.   “Traveler’s Aide: What Does An Airline Owe You When You’re Forced From First Class?”
    USA Today.   2 June 2010.

LaMance, Ken.   “Delayed, Cancelled And Overbooked Flight Laws.”
    LegalMatch (blog).   Accessed 12 April 2017.

Kristof, Kathy.   “Flight Rights: What You’re Due When Bad Things Happen.”
    CBS News.   6 August 2014.

Stellin, Susan.   “A Boarding Pass On Your Screen.”
    New York Times.   2 November 2011.

Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14.   “Chapter II, Subchapter A, Part 250, Section 250.9.”
    Accessed 12 April 2017.

United.com.   “Flight Delays And Cancellations.”
    Accessed 13 April 2017.

BusinessDictionary.   “Rack Rate.”
    Accessed 12 April 2017.

American Airlines.   “Mobile Boarding Pass.”
    Accessed 12 April 2017.

Delta.   “Eboarding Pass FAQs.”
    Accessed 12 April 2017.

United.   “Mobile Tools.”
    Accessed 12 April 2017.