Flying for Thanksgiving? Know Your Passenger Rights—and Don’t Fight Over the Armrest

November 7, 2019 1:15 am Published by Nina T. Dow

Thanksgiving is the year’s busiest weekend for air travel. You may be looking forward to festive meals with family and friends, but flying can be stressful. Departure delays, overbooked flights, lost luggage, frustrated passengers—what could go wrong? Plenty, especially when you’re aloft. Here are some tips to help you avoid trouble and arrive at your destination without running afoul of the laws of air travel.

Air Rage Can Land You in Handcuffs

We’ve all witnessed road rage. But as airplanes become more cramped and passengers become more stressed, “air rage” has become a problem. If you find yourself being harassed by a fellow passenger, seek help from a flight attendant. Don’t retaliate, however. Instigating any type of violence will land you in handcuffs, and even verbal attacks can get you into serious trouble.

On a grounded Delta Airlines flight last year, a passenger who asked her seat mate to stop cursing in front of her eight-month-old son was told to “shut up or shove it.” The miscreant then insulted a member of the cabin crew who intervened. In short order, the offending passenger was escorted off the plane. But her self-inflicted troubles didn’t end there. The protective mother had captured the incident on video, and she posted it online. The video went viral, and the angry passenger was suspended from her $95,000-a-year job at the New York State Council on the Arts.

Too Much Alcohol Could Cost a Lot More Than You Expect

If you are at least 18, but not yet 21, and you want to enjoy an alcoholic beverage on a flight, you’re in luck if you’re traveling overseas on most foreign air carriers. That’s because the laws of the airline’s home country apply to passengers while the plane is in flight. And in nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries, the legal drinking age is 18 or 19. There are exceptions, though—in Iceland and Japan, for example, you need to be 20 to buy alcohol.

Just don’t overdo it. Intoxicated passengers who get rowdy may find themselves owing the airline huge fees to cover the cost of a diverted flight, if the pilots consider a diversion to be necessary to maintain everyone’s safety. The price of a diverted flight can be as much as $200,000.

Armrest Wrangling Isn’t Worth a Fight

Who gets the armrest? A couple of years ago, on a flight from London to Màlaga, Spain, two lawyers got into a jurisdictional argument over an armrest. Accusations of spitting were made, insults were hurled, and lawsuits were threatened, as passengers giggled or gaped at the absurdity of the situation. The dispute was settled only when fight attendants separated the litigants—a good thing, because the flight was almost diverted in response to the heated quarrel.

The armrest issue arises mostly acutely for the sardined middle seat passenger: Who gets the armrest to the left and to the right? We are not aware of any legal precedents on this matter, but one flight attendant asserts that the person who sits in the middle has legal title to both armrests. If so, it’s a nice consolation prize for getting stuck in the middle!

Know Your Rights as a Passenger

Be aware of important legal rights for air travel passengers. Domestic law protects passengers who are denied boarding, experience tarmac delays, or have luggage issues.

Denied Boarding

Anyone who flies knows that U.S. airlines overbook their flights. But did you know that passengers have a right to be compensated if, as a result of overbooking, they are denied boarding when they paid in advance for their ticket? In fact, if you are denied boarding and your travel is delayed for at least an hour, you could be entitled to up to $1,350. Contact the airline to exercise your right to compensation. Sometimes you can even negotiate for more.

Tarmac Delays

You also have rights if you are delayed because your airplane sits too long on the tarmac. If your flight departing from or flying to a U.S. airport is delayed for two hours or more, the airline must provide food, water, access to the bathroom, and medical care, if necessary. If the delay stretches to three hours on a domestic flight or four hours on an international flight, the airline must give you the option to safely exit the airplane (a good time to do some airport shopping—but be sure to check if you can get back on the plane!) Please note, however, that these rules are subject to exceptions, such as delays caused by security issues.

Luggage Problems

If your luggage is lost or damaged, each airline has its own rules, but here are a few default guidelines to follow, whether the flight is domestic or international:

  • Keep your boarding pass or any documents with your booking reference number.
  • Complain right away! Fill out a claim form as soon as you get your luggage, or as soon as you discover that your luggage has been lost.
  • If your luggage is damaged, show it to an airline representative for proof that it is damaged.
  • If an item in your luggage is damaged and you think it was caused by careless handling, file a claim.
  • If items in your luggage are damaged as a result of a security search, you should file a complaint with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This happened to me. The TSA left a note in my luggage that they had searched my suitcase, and I saw that a $200 piece of Italian pottery was broken in half. I filed a claim with the TSA and succeeded in proving that the pottery was damaged as a result of the search, because the agents had removed the bubblewrap that was protecting it. After a few weeks, I received a check in the amount of $200.

I hope these tips will help you have a more pleasant flight this holiday season. Should you encounter any legal issues with airline travel, please let us know. We would love to hear from you. In the meantime, your attorneys at Mountain, Dearborn & Whiting LLP wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and safe journeys!


Attorney Nina Dow enjoys the challenge of helping clients reach their unique estate planning objectives in a tax-efficient manner. She also assists with charitable giving, special needs trusts, Medicaid planning, trust and estate administration, and the preparation of estate and fiduciary income tax returns.

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