(CNN) — After a Jamaican vacation ended in humiliation aboard an American Airlines flight in June, the ensuing controversy reignited debate about passengers’ rights.
It leaves plenty of room for interpretation.
Follow directions, complain later
Dr. Latisha Rowe says she was ordered to cover herself before she was allowed to fly on an American Airlines flight.
courtesy Dr. Latisha Rowe
And unless the passenger is the victim of discrimination, they may have little recourse.
That’s because stepping on an airplane means giving up some freedoms. “When you get on an airliner, you don’t have the same rights you do on the ground,” Hudson explains. “The authority of the captain is pretty much dictatorial.”
“If you get in any kind of altercation with the flight crew, you could be charged with a federal crime,” said Hudson. “It was put in for anti-terrorism measures, but it’s been used for pretty much everything but that.”
In light of that situation, Hudson advises passengers to document any on-board conflict while reserving serious complaints about cabin crew after the flight. Above all, it’s important to deplane if you’re ordered to do so — even if you think the crew’s behavior is unfair or discriminatory.
What happens if a crime happens onboard?
Thomas Cook Airlines staff threatened to remove Emily O’Connor from a flight for wearing “inappropriate” attire.
Cabin crew are charged with maintaining order but pursuing justice for an onboard crime can be a challenge.
If a crime happens in the air, says Hudson, it’s within the jurisdiction of the FBI. While the flight crew is the first line of defense, Hudson notes that many sexual harassment and assault complaints on planes never make it to the FBI or aren’t reported in a timely way.
“We estimate that about 95% of the cases go unresolved,” he explains, “because by the time authorities are alerted through the four- or five-step process that now exists, the plane has landed and everyone has left.”
For passengers who are harassed or assaulted on a plane, Hudson emphasizes the importance of reporting incidents to flight staff and ensuring personal safety during the remainder of the flight.
Can airlines bump you involuntarily from an overbooked flight?
Dr. David Dao was dragged off a United Airlnes flight after he refused to deplane.
The short answer is “yes.” But they might owe you.
When that doesn’t work, involuntary bumping starts. “If an insufficient number of volunteers come forward,” the law reads, “the carrier may deny boarding to other passengers in accordance with its boarding priority rules.”
Know your rights to compensation. Should you be involuntarily bumped from a flight, it’s still the airline’s job to get you where you’re going.
On domestic flights, the airline must pay you 200% of your one-way fare if you arrive at your final destination one to two hours late after getting involuntarily bumped (though the payout maxes out at $675). When the delay hits two hours, you’re entitled to 400% of your one-way fare, or up to $1,350.
And while many airlines offer vouchers as a first option, travelers are always entitled to request a check instead.
What about flight cancellations and delays?
Why the difference between US and EU laws? “There’s a different attitude by the governing bodies,” Hudson explains. “The airlines have a really large influence –I would say an undue influence — over national policy” in the United States.
According to Hudson, that’s proved an obstacle to meaningful change in the United States. “They oppose virtually any consumer protection or passenger rights legislation across the board,” he says, “the mantra has been that competition will take care of all problems.”
American Airlines was contacted for this story, but the airline did not respond by the time of publication.