Approximately 823 million passengers flew on U.S. carriers last year alone and tempers seem to flare much faster than they used to.
In just the last two months, we've seen a fist fight on a Southwest Airlines plane, a melee at an airport in Fort Lauderdale fueled by frustrated Spirit Airlines customers angered by flight cancellations, and the April incident where a bloodied doctor was dragged off a United flight for not giving up his seat.
From offensive clothing to erratic behavior, unruly incidents have spiked in recent years. Over 49,000 reported cases, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Mike Hadank has seen it all: fights with flight attendants and passengers picking at their bare feet.
"I’ve actually seen a gentleman who was so drunk he decided he would just use the seat to use the restroom right there,” Hadank said. “It's pretty nasty."
Every service and penalty is outlined in something called the ‘Contract of Carriage.’ It includes every reason you can be thrown off a plane, from poor personal hygiene to combative behavior. But the number one reason is overbooking.
"And no one really knows until they arrive at the airport whether they’re about to be bumped," said Kate Hanni, founder of flyersrights.org.
Hanni said airlines oversell seats to keep planes at max capacity, but when they do, someone’s got to go.
"It’s a bait and switch. The airline gets you there, they try to get you to forgive your seat for $100 or $200,” Hanni said.
These days, you’re entitled up to $1,350 for a one-way flight, plus ancillary fees paid in cash, by check, or gift card. All thanks, in part, to Hanni’s nonprofit group.
Another monumental right it won for travelers resulted from her own flightmare.
"Our family was stuck for 9 hours and 17 minutes on an Austin tarmac with overflowing toilets, no food, screaming babies; it was insane," Hanni said.
Now airlines can only hold you for three hours on a domestic flight and four on an international flight. You also have a 24-hour grace period when booking a fare. Chronically late and canceled flights must be publicly reported. Airlines can’t increase ticket prices post purchase. They must also pay for lost or stolen luggage with no cap for carry-ons and up to $3,500 on a checked bag.
"I tell everyone to put a copy of your itinerary in your bag. Pack smartly. Photograph what you have in your bags so you have proof," Hanni said.
Hanni said to keep medicines, extra clothes, and snacks with you in case you’re stranded. And document any problems
"They really need to be proactive about making sure their bags arrive with them that they are unmolested or uninjured when they get on their flight and advocate for themselves," she said.
A growing number of airlines are now authorized to compensate passengers up to $10,000. While the golden age of air travel may be gone, the golden rule should still apply.
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