A crewmember just ordered me off the plane. Do I have to obey?

By | May 9th, 2017

United Airlines has been in the news a lot lately and the stories have been disturbing. It’s been so disturbing to reader Janis Dolnick, who has two upcoming flights booked on United, that she wrote to us to ask what rights she has, if any, should she be asked to leave a flight.

It’s a question I wish no one needed to ask, but knowing what responsibility you have to comply if a crewmember asks you to leave a flight you’ve already boarded could save you from more than a late arrival at your destination.

According to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the number of passengers bumped off flights reached its peak in 1998 and steadily declined until 2014. It climbed back to 515,000 passengers in 2015 (statistics for 2016 have not been added to the table), which is approximately 9 percent of the number of total passengers boarded.

Although some may find this surprising, the DOT does not consider it illegal to overbook a flight:

Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” Passengers are sometimes left behind or “bumped” as a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.

These exceptions include:

  • not complying with the airline’s ticketing or check-in policies;
  • the flight is canceled;
  • the equipment was changed to a smaller aircraft;
  • the aircraft has 60 or fewer seats and the removal of passengers was necessary for weight and balance restrictions;
  • your alternate flight arrives less than one hour after your original flight;
  • you are accommodated in a higher class of service than your original flight.
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There are other reasons that you could be asked to leave a plane you have already boarded without being compensated, including:

  • government requisition of space;
  • your refusal to carry identification or submit to person or property search;
  • you appear to be drunk or otherwise impaired;
  • you are clothed in a manner that would be offensive to other passengers;
  • you are barefoot;
  • you refuse to obey a member of the flight crew;
  • your conduct is disorderly, abusive, or violent;
  • you attempt to interfere with any member of the flight crew;
  • or you do something to jeopardize the safety of the aircraft or others on board.

Keep in mind that if you are asked to leave a plane for most of the above reasons you could be arrested.


Each airline is allowed to set its own rules for boarding priority as well as for deciding which passengers would be involuntarily bumped. But the DOT does mandate that the airline must first try to incentivize guests to voluntarily give up their seats. It also sets rules on the minimum amount of compensation a guest must receive if he is bumped:

  • If you arrive at your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, no compensation is given.
  • If you arrive at your destination one to two hours after your original arrival time, you’re entitled to 200% of your one-way fare, with a $675 maximum.
  • If you arrive at your destination more than two hours later, the compensation doubles to a maximum of $1,350.

Each domestic carrier has its own set of rules for boarding and for bumping passengers, and most airlines include the “elite members” of its frequent flier program, but prior to the recent incident, only American Airlines promised not to remove a passenger who has already boarded the plane.

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In the days following the United incident at O’Hare in April, Delta Airlines increased the amount of compensation its airport staff is allowed to offer to $10,000 in order to ensure its passengers are willing to give up their seats voluntarily. United Airlines announced that employees must be booked at least 60 minutes prior to boarding, and that it will no longer remove passengers from the plane after they have boarded.

Not surprisingly, United’s list of reasons to remove a passenger from a flight is significantly longer than those of the other airlines.

The short answer to Dolnick’s question is this: If you’ve committed any of the offenses that the DOT has outlined for removing people from a flight, the answer is yes, you should immediately disembark.

If this is merely an overbooking situation and you can’t be late getting to your destination, immediately tell the gate agent. He or she should be able to put you at the bottom of the potential “bump list” if you have a valid reason (“I have to get back to my cats” isn’t a valid reason, but “I have patients to see tomorrow” should be). If you’ve already boarded the plane, you may refuse and give a reason why, but you may also find yourself confronted by airport security.



  • sirwired

    “He or she should be able to put you at the bottom of the potential “bump list” if you have a valid reason (“I have to get back to my cats” isn’t a valid reason, but “I have patients to see tomorrow” should be)”

    I disagree. To me, this reads like: (To paraphrase Orwell) “All passengers should receive great service, but some should greater service than others.”

    I can see something like needing to make a one-time event (wedding, funeral, cruise, once-a-week international connection, whatever) for being a good reason to not get bumped. But bumping passengers up the list because of some completely arbitrary (and discriminatory) order of importance as a person?

    If it was no big deal for the Cat Person to arrive home late, one would presume they would have volunteered at some point.

  • John Baker

    Of course, refusing to leave the plane when told you constitutes “Failure to follow crew member instructions” and is an arrest-able offense.

    In general, its like a restaurant, when the manager asks you to leave, you leave and argue the grounds and the compensation later unless you’re looking for conflict.

  • finance_tony

    Are there ANY instructions that a crewmember could give that you wouldn’t have to follow? No matter how absurd or ridiculous?

    And, just a point of order, since we’re being officious: a gate agent is not a member of the crew.

  • DChamp56

    Stop overbooking. Period.
    Problem solved.
    if your plane has 200 seats, and 200 people paid for seats, that should be the end of it.

  • Kerr

    “It climbed back to 515,000 passengers in 2015 (statistics for 2016 have not been added to the table), which is approximately 9 percent of the number of total passengers boarded.”

    Missing a decimal point (or two)? One out of every ten passengers isn’t being denied boarding.

  • Lindabator

    would never work – people miss flights all the time, and they move folks to other flights — by your standards, then, the airlines could say travel on your ticket or get a new one if you miss the flight

  • Lindabator

    thank you – GROSS exaggeration!

  • Annie M

    And for those that miss their flights, the airlines were already paid for that seat. So they aren’t losing anything by leaving the seat empty except being able to sell it a second time.

  • Dutchess

    Thank you that number doesn’t pass the sniff test! Total passenger count in 2015 was approximately 895.5 Million. So half a million passengers bumped is 0.058%. That seems far far far more believable.

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/bts018_16

  • cscasi

    However, for someone who misses his/her flight, in many cases (flight tire rule, late arrival of inbound flight for connection, etc.) the airline puts the late passenger on another of its flights, so the airline is not making money from the already purchased seat because it is providing the seat on another of its flights.

  • cscasi

    According to data from the Department of Transportation, about 475,000 passengers were denied boarding voluntarily or involuntarily last year because the airlines sold more tickets than there were seats on the plane. A total of 40,629 passengers were denied boarding involuntarily on domestic flights in 2016, slightly down from the 43,704 passengers who were bumped against their will in 2015.

  • Koholaz

    There are just too many subjective reasons for, in my opinion. For example, “you are clothed in a manner that would be offensive to other passengers” could be a minefield. A woman wearing a hijab may be “offensive” to someone rabidly anti-Muslim. “You refuse to obey a member of the flight crew” within what set of rules? Refusing to put the seat in the upright position is one thing, refusing to speak more softly or close the window shade because someone in the next row wants to sleep is entirely another. Obedience to safety and regulatory rules must be followed. Something more arbitrary should not constitute a reason to be tossed off.

    And not to be an old biddy, but if you have pets you probably DO need to be back at a scheduled time. I leave my dog with friends but I don’t like to take advantage of their kindness.

  • Michael__K

    If you sell more tickets than you have seats, then by definition some passengers can expect to receive lesser service (i.e. no service except on a later flight).

    The airline is allowed to sell full-fares that cost more than IDB compensation even after they know that passengers will have to be bumped.

    So one way or another, they are picking some passengers over others, regardless of whether the selection criteria is based on elite status or checkin time or price paid or occupation.

  • Michael__K

    That still wouldn’t solve the problem — airlines will still have last minute dead-heading crew members and seats will still occasionally break and sometimes a flight is operated with a smaller aircraft rather than canceled and sometimes seats must be left empty for weight-balance reasons.

  • AAGK

    I have to take a flight next week where United provides the only nonstop from my home. I’m not happy about it and I also plan on wearing leggings. Maybe I will have something exciting to report.

  • Jeff W.

    Unless you were given a buddy pass by a family member or friend, then you should not have a problem. Don’t get beat up by any airport security and make sure you are not traveling with your giant rabbit.

  • Travelnut

    I’m flying in a couple of weeks on UA, and I believe that is also the only nonstop from my city. They tell me to get off the plane, I’m getting off the plane.

  • DChamp56

    And what’s wrong with that?

  • DChamp56

    Crew member dead-heading is on the air carrier, not on the paying customer! Let the airline figure out how to dead-head their people more efficiently. They certainly figured out how to charge us more for baggage, and shorten the distance between seats without any problems!

  • TravelingSalesman

    ALWAYS, When Law Enforcement tells you to comply, comply. You can sort it out later, but any sign of resistance will be met with overwhelming force and you will loose. Your rights later in court will be substantially diminished if you try to fight them.

    Document DOCUMENT! Work it out later. It’s never worth trading a night on a bench in the airport for a night in jail.

  • Michael__K

    Of course it should be on the air carrier. I just point out that the general problem doesn’t go away. It’s not even unique to airlines — hotels and car rental companies have been known to dishonor paid reservations as well.

  • BubbaJoe123

    1. The rate of bumping isn’t 9%, that’s off by a factor of 100.
    2. The vast majority of bumps are voluntary (i.e. people volunteer to take a later flight in exchange for compensation). Involuntary bumps are less than 1 in 10,000 passengers. It’s REALLY rare.

  • Koholaz

    I don’t think it’s all that rare. Heck, I’VE been bumped and I only fly a couple of times a year! Luckily my time was flexible and since it was the last flight of the day the were standing there with the checkbook for my $1300. The other two “bumpees” were not as happy about it, though.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You’re free to think what you want, but the statistics are as I’ve laid out. See the link below. In 2015, there were 613M pax on domestic flights in the US. 46k were involuntarily bumped. That’s 0.008%, or 1 in 13,300.

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_64.html

  • BubbaJoe123

    For those who demand that airlines end overbooking, I have a question.

    Roughly 1 in 13,000 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding in 2015 (link below). How much more would you be willing to pay for your ticket to ensure that you have zero chance of being involuntarily bumped?

    https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_64.html

  • Alan Gore

    I can remember a statistic from the days when tickets were exchangeable and refundable in the early Seventies, that the industry suffered about an 8% no-show rate. Their rationale for making everything nonrefundable was that it would eliminate the no-show problem, since every reserved seat would now be irrevocably paid for, whether or not occupied. So what the airlines are really arguing for today is the right to sell a certain percentage of their seats twice.

    Do we have any stats on what the actual percentage of no-shows is now?

  • Alan Gore

    So under which of the above criteria did Delta justify the Schear ejection in Maui? This was the family who quibbled about seat assignment for their two small children but eventually agreed to give up their paid-for additional seat to a standby?

    This is why we need mandatory FAA reporting of all ejections with the threat of federal prosecution for gratuitous retaliatory ejections as a check on crew misbehavior.

  • sirwired

    Yes, the fact that the airline will have to pick-and-choose is obvious. All I’m saying is that merely being a Doctor vs. a Cat Lady should not be on the list of criteria for choosing.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Runs about 10%, but varies hugely depending on route, time of day, etc. No-show problem has largely been eliminated, since carriers don’t find themselves with lots of unpaid empty seats at departure.

  • BubbaJoe123

    1. They didn’t have a “paid for additional seat,” that’s the entire point. The seat was for a person (their 18 year old son) who didn’t board the plane, but rather flew back earlier. So, he was a no-show, and hence they didn’t get to keep the seat.
    2. We do have Federal reporting of both voluntary and involuntary denied boarding. Have for at least 25 years, probably longer. https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_64.html

  • Noah Kimmel

    the solution would then be to cancel future flights which hurts even more people. for reference, delta’s involuntary denied boarding is 1 in 100,000. JetBlue doesnt oversell, but does deny boarding since they have had to swap larger a321s for a320s. United had the crew issue. Things happen. You can’t regulate away all issues. It is fine to be frustrated, and airlines can do better, but outrage without a solution helps no one.

  • Noah Kimmel

    it varies significantly by route, and you would have to adjust no-show vs. change (either in advance or day of changes). I imagine a shuttle flight from LGA-BOS with hourly departures has a lot of churn, but a 1x per week international flight has less.

    no published stats that I know of, just denied boarding, which is broken out by voluntary and involuntary. you could argue that voluntary denied boardings are good, as someone willingly took the money.

  • Noah Kimmel

    it’s funny, at least the airline I formerly worked at, the system gave the list – generally by status + fare class + booking channel (i.e. orbitz name your own price would be higher than elite person). The goal was to let the system give a method so agents wouldn’t be forced to decide and weigh excuses against each other and be accused of biases

  • Michael__K

    If it’s so rare, and the alternative is so terrible, then why can’t the carriers afford to make offers that passengers can’t refuse in such very rare scenarios?

  • Lindabator

    they STILL put them on a flight – and not always one which had the low rate to begin with

  • Lindabator

    religious beliefs are always covered – federal law trumps paranoia in those cases

  • Lindabator

    simple – they never BOUGHT a seat – so they are not ENTITLED to one

  • Michael__K

    Any criteria is going to be either arbitrary or discriminatory in some way.
    I agree that merely being an MD probably shouldn’t be a criteria, but if the doctor is traveling to perform critical care, maybe even a life-saving operation, I sure hope they aren’t bumped from the flight…

  • Alan Gore

    So…after making things massively less convenient for the passenger in order to kill off the no-show problem, the no-show rate has actually gotten two percentage points WORSE than it was before the non-refundability of everything? I rest my case.

  • Alan Gore

    I’m talking about the ejection itself, the seat switch question being discussed in a separate thread. Delta had no right to eject a whole family for simply questioning the FA on the seat assignment issue. If it did, Delta wouldn’t have publicly apologized and refunded the family after being called on the matter.

  • BubbaJoe123

    No, the no-show problem isn’t worse. The problem was that people were cancelling at the last minute, so lots of seats were going out unpaid. Now, that’s not happening.

    If you’d like to go back to the days of regulation, be my guest, but I’m not sure you’ll find a lot of support for a return to $2500 minimum round trips JFK-LAX.

  • AAGK

    I would too of course. There’s ample time to fight with the airline afterwards, without getting hurt. I’m still wearing leggings in protest. I will wear a long sweater and jacket though so UA may miss my civil disobedience. .

  • Koholaz

    I think I would accept that one element EXCEPT – Delta scanned the boarding pass AND allowed them to board. The time to play the no-show card would have been prior to boarding. If there had not been an overbooking situation, would they have allowed the toddler to sit in that seat? Most certainly.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Not quite sure what you mean here. Delta, as I understand it, scanned the number of boarding passes as there were people (four). The airline allowed them to board as they were booked (either three seats or two, unclear which, but certainly less than they four they tried to occupy). They certainly would have allowed the toddler to sit in that seat if they flight wasn’t full, but that’s neither here nor there, the flight was full.

  • joycexyz

    I think the problem with the leggings was that the “offender” was traveling on an airline pass, which requires conforming to a dress code. But by all means carry a long cover-up, in case someone finds your outfit too provocative. Perhaps we gals should all dress like devout Muslim women??? But surely someone might find that offensive also. Just can’t win!

  • Lindabator

    they just wanted to avoid bad publicity – the family never BOUGHT the seat they wanted to use, then argued – guaranteed that gets you tossed

  • AAGK

    So true. I get it wants employees to look professional on the plane in case an employee needs to drag someone off :) but sounds like there were some kids involved so the agent was just fashion policing or being a pain. Burkhas and leggings are problematic I guess but the guy with the coat, blazer, belt and piles of change in his pocket is good to go.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I would argue Delta, at least, does make it a very rare situation – 1 in 100,000 is a pretty good track record, and it will likely get even better as they increased the payment amounts (now $9950 vs old $2000) and allow for payments in Amex gift cards (similar to cash vs. travel credits many people wont use).

  • Noah Kimmel

    Perhaps this will help illustrate the math — if we assume a “regular” plane holds 150 people on it (737, a32Xs are in the 130-190 range for most airlines, so back of envelope average here…), then 1 denied boarding passenger per flight is still under 1%.

    I’m assuming if you don’t fly often, it means you are probably flying at peak times like holidays when it is more likely to see an oversell situation as well as going “with the crowd” i.e. headed to sunny destination on a friday in winter vs leaving. It obviously varies by route, carrier, time of year, and time of day, but with average load factors in the 80%s for most carriers, the number of flights over 100% cant be too many

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I always like to travel with my best friend Elwood.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    The obvious criteria is cash. Offer enough and someone will volunteer.

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