Mistakes on a Plane

What to do when the airline is at fault

Recent incidents on airplanes have caused some serious turbulence—videos have gone viral, stocks have dropped and many airlines are changing policies. One thing that hasn’t changed? The limited scope of passengers’ rights.
 
“It’s become fairly evident that airlines have broad discretion to refuse to let passengers board and to take them off the plane. As fare-paying passengers, we like to think we have a lot of rights, but the airlines are in charge here,” says Erin Applebaum, who handles airline injury cases for Cellino & Barnes in Manhattan. “Make no mistake about it.”
 
In April 2017, after David Dao was forcibly removed from a United Airlines seat at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the video of the incident was viewed millions of times and became part of the national conversation. If you ever face such a situation, attorneys say it pays to go quietly—literally; you could face fines of up to $25,000 if you are deemed “unruly.” Ninety-two passengers were deemed so in 2016, says the FAA, and more than 300 in years prior. According to regulations: “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of [their] duties aboard an aircraft.”
 
“There have always been confrontations on airplanes,” Applebaum says. “I personally was witness to a fistfight on a plane when I was in law school. We just didn’t have people taping it on their phones and putting it on social media.” 
 
If you find yourself being asked to, for example, leave an airplane, Applebaum’s advice is simple: “Do what the airline says. I know it may seem like the airline is being unfair or treating you poorly, but you’re not going to win that fight.” She says it’s best to wait until you’re off the plane to address the situation.
 
“Dr. Dao was very lucky that his altercation was caught on tape at exactly the right moment,” she adds. “I can’t say that the same thing would have happened if it had not been taped and put online. I think that if this were a situation where there was no video evidence of what had occurred, the airline would have tried to fight it a little harder.” 
 
The same goes for injuries sustained on a flight—be it those from turbulence, a fall in the jetway or items falling from overhead bins. 
 
Manhattan attorney Jonathan Reiter handles a variety of airline injury cases, including crashes. “We had one where a pilot had a mental breakdown, mid-flight,” Reiter says. “He came out of the cockpit and was raving about al-Qaeda and so forth. We represented 30 people on that flight for emotional harm sustained from fear of impending death.”
 
Often these cases rely on proving negligence—that someone or something did not operate correctly. “Airlines very rarely will admit that they did anything wrong, and most people don’t know that they have legal recourse,” says Applebaum. “What [people] tend to do is reach out to the airline, file a complaint, get offered a few thousand frequent flier miles and take it because they don’t know of any other options.”
 
Attorneys advise that you never sign a waiver or release in exchange for compensation, since it could damage your case for further benefits. 
 
“It’s a good idea to find counsel that has experience in this area because there are a lot of twists and turns in aviation law,” Reiter says. “They can also help you get through the shock and trauma of what’s happened to you.”
 
Reiter also says to avoid making any statements to the airline following an injury. “They typically come in under the guise of being helpful, but they know they’re going to be sued so they try to lay a groundwork to defend themselves.”
 
With the increased awareness of incidents like Dao’s, airlines are under increased scrutiny. “That really raised awareness of just how insensitive they can be,” Reiter says. “But it took tremendous embarrassment and trauma to bring this to the public eye and cause change.”
 
The changes, thankfully, favor passengers. “If you see an airline in headlines, you can be sure passengers are winning in the court of public opinion,” Applebaum says. 

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