American Airlines Bumps Passenger Off Flight, Agent Says They “Do Not Care About DOT Rules”

Michael Trager, who runs frequent traveler and casino loyalty site TravelZork, had one of the most interesting “bump” stories I’ve heard in a long time. He was involuntarily denied boarding on an American Airlines flight last week, and airport staff refused to provide him any compensation saying that they “do not care about DOT Rules.”

When you’re confirmed on a flight – boarding pass in hand, even – and the airline tells you they don’t have a seat available for you they are ‘bumping’ you off the trip. And when they aren’t offering you enough compensation to take another flight willingly, that’s an “involuntary denied boarding.” Under federal rules, an airline owes you cash. But what happens when they just tell you to pound sand?

The interesting wrinkle here is that Trager was confirmed onto the flight after first standing by for it.

He was issued a boarding pass. He boarded the aircraft and stowed his carry on bag. But that’s when he discovered there was already someone else at his seat.

He waited in the aircraft’s back galley while American sorted out the situation. The other passenger presented “an email on his phone that said his seat was changed” and it did not match his boarding pass.

The flight attendant’s tablet “showed [his] name for the specific seat” that matched his boarding pass, but he was ‘kicked off’ the aircraft.

Michael Trager relays that the gate agent, who identified themselves as a supervisor, said “We do this all day long.” They were unwilling to discuss compensation or treat him as though he’d been denied boarding. They simply said they shouldn’t have cleared him off of standby.

He says that “they refuse[d] to discuss further, say[ing] there is no further or higher management in terminal 8 at JFK.” He reports that he was yelled and screamed at even though by their own admission it was their error (this is, after all, New York). And he was told that they “do not care” about what Department of Transportation rules may apply. When he said that left him no avenue other than filing with DOT, he reports that they told him “You do what you have to do.”

So here’s what the Department of Transportation has to say about ‘bumping’ passengers.

First, if I’m right that this is an involuntary denied boarding then the amount of compensation due is based on how long the passenger is delayed. In this case it was over 2 hours (the next flight left 3.5 hours later), which would mean the airline owes him 400% of the cost of his one-way fare, not to exceed $1,550.

There are exceptions where an airline doesn’t owe compensation when they deny you boarding. However,

  • There was no aircraft change or weight and balance issue. It was not a charter flight or plane with fewer than 30 passengers.
  • In this case the denial was not “due to a safety, security, or health risk, or due to a behavior that is considered obscene, disruptive, or otherwise unlawful.”

Here it appears to me that American Airlines didn’t just fail to pay compensation required under federal regulations, they may have violated three other rules along the way as well.

  1. They removed him from the aircraft after the gate agent accepted his boarding pass and let him know that he could proceed to board (the David Dao rule).

  2. The passenger was not given a “written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets bumped.”

  3. And they were not paid promptly since “airlines must offer passengers compensation at the airport on the same day” and if this is impossible because the airline gets the passenger on their way too quickly, the the airline “must pay the passenger within 24 hours of the bumping incident.”

He waited out the delay until the 11:30 a.m. flight in the Greenwich lounge, the shared American Airlines-British Airways business class lounge in New York JFK terminal 8, by virtue of his partner airline elite status.

I suggested to him that he’d likely need to file a DOT consumer complaint and let them sort it out. Doing that gets more senior eyes on the issue at the airline.

However, I also reached out to American to learn more about the situation. I understand they looked into the matter, and American will be providing involuntary denied boarding compensation. They agree that having been issued the boarding pass, which they accepted for travel, means this falls under denied boarding rules.

That’s a great outcome. While it’s certainly my read of DOT regulations that he’s entitled to compensation, American might have responded that they’d simply made a brief error which they corrected. And he ultimately traveled on his originally-booked flight. DOT could be sympathetic to an airline making a mistake and “exercise enforcement discretion” (decide to ignore the rules) and not pressure the air carrier for compensation.

Regardless, this scenario fascinated me because it’s not how denied boardings usually unfold. And the passenger is going to receive compensation without having to go to the Department of Transportation (or wait).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Wife and I just flew AA from Miami to Liberia, Costa Rica. Boarded flight, sat for an hour, FA says pilot doesn’t have the credentials to fly to CR
    What the heck! Deplane for another gate three hours later. Boarded, sat for another hour. Pilot says plane was refueled for a different destination and is over weight, so we sat at the gate burning off fuel. The whole thing sounds fishy to me.

  2. This is an accidental seat dup that happens occasionally due to human error. He is not entitled to anything as long as he got a seat back on his original flight that he picked. He was on same day standby, which is different than an oversold situation, which is key when it comes to getting compensated. He was never sold a ticket on that flight, so there’s no compensation.

    My guess is the passenger who was seated in that seat either miscanned their mobile boarding pass when boarding, the system glitched and the scan didn’t go through, or the agent miscanned their boarding pass.

    So when the employee went to clear standbys they released the seats of people who seemingly hadn’t shown up. Since the person seated there was not showing on the plane per the computer, they appeared to be a no show, except they were infact in their seat on board.

    This is a good example of why nobody, the employee nor the passenger, should rush when scanning a boarding pass. You have to make sure the computer acknowledges the scan.

  3. The people they hire now at minimum wage do not know how to talk to people, and in generally are as classy as the agents at JFK, and what’s worse is that after minimal training they all seem to grow chips on their shoulders that would dwarf Quasimodo’s hump. But, you get what you pay for — fly foreign carriers if you want grace, Courtesy, and decency. Those qualities are not associated with US carriers.

  4. Time and again, when it comes to Airlines (especially in the U.S.), you will encounter crappy service. That’s a given.
    When and where is the exciting and mysterious part.
    Having said that, if and when you encounter bad service, always file a formal complaint with the airline.
    More likely than not, you will receive some compensation in the form of flight credits, miles or even cash refunds.
    US-based airlines have mastered this method.

  5. He is not entitled to anything. He had a confirmed seat on a later flight. He probably just came to the airport early and said “can i get on the earlier flight?” He was put on STANDBY for an earlier flight and got accidently cleared out of order. Once they figured it out, they pulled him off and gave the seat to the appropriate customer.

    Now, I’m sure the sassy New York gate agents didn’t make things any better by giving attitude due to their mistake. They could of handled better but this case won’t go far at the DOT and the customer is not entitled to any denied boarding compensation. Go to lounge, have a beer and wait for the ORIGINAL flight you were on.✌️

  6. My wife worked for Piedmont Airlines, then USAirlines and retired just shortly before they became AA Airlines. For 32 years she worked in the refund accounting department. The have strict rules as to who and the reason refunds are given. If he was boarding as a standby there’s no way he’ll get the first dollar. In his case there could have been someone show up at the gate late. The gate agent thinking he was a no show gave his seat assignment out. He also may have been the last S/B of several to board when this happened. The rules in that case is last on first off of that happens. This has happened to us on several different occasions. I’ve been sitting in my seat waiting for the door to close and get a tap on the shoulder and had to watch my luggage sometimes leave without us. The only way to insure you can get a refund for almost anything is to purchase a Full price ticket. All he is doing here is trying to make the airline look terrible and cheap for something he has no rights too.

  7. Never fly American Airlines they are the worst,did a similar thing to me years ago,and told me to buzz off they didn’t owe me a thing.

  8. He was flying standby. Most everyone knows how that works. Quit your whining and wait for the next flight. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  9. It’s only gonna get worse, especially when the communist/globalist takeover is complete and the W H.O. treaty is updated complete in Nov.

  10. I have experienced these behaviors with AA several times. I had to fight for weeks to get compensated for a flight our of Chicago. My husband and I and a military person on his way back from deployment were bumped by 3 people who had just that day purchased tickets. Our tickets were purchased 6 months in advance and the military person had his flight booked for over a week. We were bumped by Jessco White the welfare recipient of WV who was going home to get his sisters kids before she went to prison. We ended up spending the night in an airport hotel at our expense, missing a days work, losing a vacation day from our job, and disrupting our sons schedule who was to pick us up. First we need fixed prices, 2nd no overbooking should be permitted, and 3rd we need some type of protection from the verbal abuse from employees. My husband is a 32 yr retired veteran – he was verbally assaulted in Las Vegas airport by an AA employee who called him a “fraud and false military wannabe” and accused of “expecting extras”. All all this and more yet we had never said a word, never asked for a thing, we were just checking in for the flight. The guy was a total nut. On the flight I was pushed by a flight attendant after exiting the bathroom and then yelled at for not getting into my seat fast enough. I could not get in my seat because another passenger was sitting in it waiting for the bathroom. There was no reason for the pushing or yelling – no serving going on, no seatbelt alert, no rough air, nothing. Dozens of guests witnessed her assault – we were all just disgusted.

  11. Petty gate tyrants thinking they rule the world. They’re no better than trashily unruly, and disorderly, customers.

  12. Enough bullshit said. I dare any of you Entitled passengers to work on any airline and dealt with passengers like you. Bet you real money you wouldn’t last 5 minutes…Bunch of dontknowshitofwhatgoesbehindthescenes…Oh and to you minority hater. YOU ARE MINORITY TOO MORON. Ask the natives of the country…

  13. I do not like AA. Multiple boarding/flight issues. Finally had to sue them (and won). Took a lot of time. Shame on them.

  14. He was not entitled to anything. He was in stand by and given a seat by mistake,.anybody can make a.mistake. Yes, it is true some.agents can be rude and there for rudness. Especially in customer service companies such as AA.

  15. Wanna bet that they will never bump any illegal for any reason who may have just crossed the border hours before…

  16. Why are you always pos5ing gossip? Always a one sided story. Don’t you know most people lie on social media just to be thw victim of something they created themselves

  17. @phil I hate to break it to you sport but AA sucked long before US Airways bought them. Agents miserable, f/a’s were and still are some of the most miserable sky hags in the air and the pilots believing the sun rose and set from their little hats.

  18. I have had nothing but good experiences with AA. Got bumped from a flight, voluntarily and was put up in a nice hotel, fed a good breakfast and dinner, given vip treatment. Even got a deck of cards to help pass the time

  19. The thing you have to realize is he was a standbye passenger. That means he only goes if there is an empty seat for him. The gate agent assigned him a seat by mistake when there was a passenger there not on standbye. The fact that he got assigned a seat doesn’t change the fact he is still flying standbye.


  21. It’s truly unbelievable how many comments sustain airline employee incompetence, rudeness, and arrogance… A sad commentary on the times.

  22. This was a mistake on the agent’s part. This guy should not have received compensation. He was on the wait-list to begin with. This means he either missed his flight or wanted to go out on an earlier flight. Agent’s tried to accommodate him but somehow the confirmed seat was reissued. Making a big deal of this only makes agent’s jobs harder.

  23. My daughter was flying back to school from California after Thanksgiving, and AA cancelled her flight from Chicago to Moline, Illinois when she arrived at ORD. They said it was because of weather. It wasn’t storming, it wasn’t cold, or snowing in Chicago or in the Quad Cities. The next flight wasn’t until early the next day. Moline is a 4 hour drive away. She just turned 18 less than a month prior. Because if her age she could not rent a car, get a hotel room, nor was she allowed to stay in the children’s area that they have for minors. They would not make arrangements for a different airline, nor give her food vouchers. Anyone that could help her, didn’t. She was alone in an unknown airport, scared and hungry and waited 17 hours for her flight. No one helped. I believe they cancelled her flight because they didn’t have a full plane. There ended up to be about only 8 people on her flight to MLI.

  24. @Alex, it could also have been that they didn’t have a crew to fly the flight or didn’t have the aircraft in position to get there. United did the same thing to me many years ago. Lying about the weather saves the company money so it is what is required of the employees.

  25. American Airlines is doing this to more travelers without care. I traveled to Punta Cuna and after checking in with an agent because I booked through a third party. I was given my boarding pass proceeded to gate and boarded the plane only to see someone sitting in my seat that I paid for. The gate agents involuntarily changed my seat and did not tell me. Can you image how I felt and trying to figure out where I was going to sit while others are still boarding. I was fuming my boarding pass and another passenger both had the same seat assignment. I’m guessing American bumped my seat to accommodate a group traveling together.

  26. What can be done about the gate agent? Last time at AA JFK, the gate agent wouldn’t let me board because I arrived at the gate at 8:48 for 9pm flight. Basically they gave my seat away. It was the last flight to LA. I had to come back the next day, the same gate agent was there and was so rude to me that fellow passengers encouraged not to respond to her while another passenger admonished her. How do we solve that? They are obviously out of control.

  27. I am not sure that flying standby and being refuse a guaranteed seat are the same. When I go online and secure a seat in advance, it is 100% mine and those rules would apply. I am not sure the same applies for standby. I would suggest reading ALL fine print not just one paragraph.

  28. This “story” is not worthy of your blog. I don’t know why you’re getting so invested in this one traveler’s mildly unpleasant experience and saddling your readers with an 800-word article about it.

  29. This is a case of no good deed goes unpunished. AA tried to accommodate this passenger, had a technical error occur, and then the benefactor attempts to extort AA for something he was not originally entitled. I think this passenger was actually an attorney in disguise.

  30. This doesn’t surprise me at all. I bought aatickets a year in advance I had row 14 because I am disabled. When I got my tickets they bumped us all the way to row 33. I was not happy. When I contacted AA several times they never got back with me on my issue. That is how you treat customers by ignoring us? This still hasn’t been resolved. I will never ever fly with AA again. If they can’t address the issue I also was never compensated me either. Not very good customer relations.

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