American Airlines: Passengers Aren’t Entitled To Fly In Seats, Can Be Kicked Off For Any Reason

An American Airlines passenger bought a seat for her 18 month old child. A flight attendant refused to allow them to use it, saying children under two weren’t allowed in seats without a car seat. This was wrong. The passenger is suing, because American wouldn’t refund the seat they’d purchased but weren’t permitted to use.

And One Mile at a Time reports that the airline is making two claims in response to the suit,

  1. They’re only required to transport a passenger, not to transport them in a seat. Since the toddler flew, they got the full value of their ticket.

  2. The flight attendant, who threatened to kick the passengers off the flight and who denied use of the seat all based on a misunderstanding of policy, was within their rights to do so even though they were wrong.

This is literally insane, but it comes from an airline so seems about right. In 2015 they actually changed the terms of their frequent flyer program to specifically disclaim “any duty of good faith and fair dealing” towards customers.

As One Mile at a Time describes the incident, the passenger flew Portland to Dallas to Tallahassee with 18 month old twins. You’re only allowed one passenger on lap, so she bought a ticket for the second child using her miles. They had no issue on their first flight.

  • A child can sit in their own seat, without a car seat, if they can “sit upright in their seat without assistance and have their seatbelt securely fastened during taxi, takeoff, landing and whenever the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign is on.”

  • Since she was traveling with young twins, she decided to check their car seats. Carrying a car seat is a lot to juggle while managing 18 month olds.

  • On her flight from Dallas to Tallahassee, she says a flight attendant told her that it’s “FAA and American Airlines policy to not allow an infant under the age of two to occupy their own seat without a car seat.” That is false. (I chose a middle ground, using an FAA-approved CARES harness with my daughter when she was young.)

    Cares Harness, Credit: FAA

  • The flight attendant never claimed that the child couldn’t sit upright as required, just that traveling without a car seat was against the rules. And they “threatened to remove Erika and her twins from the plane,” however another passenger actually “offered to hold her daughter for the duration of the flight,” so that they were a lap child rather than sitting in their own seat against rules the crewmember had made up.

Flight attendants make mistakes. They probably don’t get enough recurrent training, and frequently don’t read the updates that they do receive. In my experience they learn proper procedure via rumor from colleagues more than from their airline, at least in the United States.

In the end, the passengers traveled, albeit thanks to the kindness of a stranger rather than the airline. It seems reasonable, though, that the passenger would ask for and receive a refund of the seat that they improperly denied use of. American said no. Now they’ve sued in small claims court.

American’s legal position appears to be two-fold, as reported by One Mile at a Time. First, that the airline’s Contract of Carriage requires them to transport passengers whether or not they’re in a seat. The plaintiff merely “allege[s] that there was a dispute about where and how the infant was to sit.”

Plaintiff alleges American breached the CoC by refusing to let her infant occupy the seat she had purchased. The infant, however, had a ticket that required American to transport her from Portland, Oregon, to a final destination of Tallahassee, Florida. While Plaintiff alleges that there was a dispute about where and how the infant was to sit, Plaintiff does not dispute that the infant in fact flew safely from Portland, Oregon, to Tallahassee, Florida.

Plaintiff offers no facts to support any language within the CoC supporting her claim for breach of contract by American, and there is nothing in the governing contract that requires American to do anything beyond transport a passenger from one place to another on the date and time of the ticket. Even the seat assignment of a passenger is not guaranteed under the contract.

The infant purchased a service, a seat that they were not allowed to use, so that service should be refunded. They traveled as a lap infant which is free on domestic flights.

Meanwhile under American’s interpretation, when Pakistan International Airlines flew to Saudi Arabia with more passengers on board than seats they’d actually done nothing wrong, at least with respect to the passengers who purchased tickets? After all they ultimately flew without incident and on American Airlines their ticket only requires them to transport people from their origin to destination. Passengers without seats cannot cite anything in the airline’s Contract of Carriage (CoC) that says seats are an entitlement!

American’s other argument appears to be that flight attendants can deny boarding to passengers for any reason or no reason, and such decisions are un-reviewable.

Conversely, the contract states that American may refuse to transport a passenger if the passenger’s “physical or mental condition is such that in American’s sole opinion” the passenger is rendered or likely to be rendered incapable of…complying with safety instructions without the assistance of an attendant. Plaintiff alleges that American “question[ed] whether [her] seating configuration was safe for [her] children.” Had the flight attendant concluded in its sole opinion that the infant was not capable of complying with the safety instructions as outlined in the contract that required the infant to remain sitting up and with its seatbelt fastened for take off, landing, and anytime the ‘fasten seat belt’ sign was on, she would have been doing so consistent with the terms of the contract.

The airline’s “sold opinion” is all that matters to deny boarding here, and the flight attendant’s opinion is the airline’s opinion. Yet here the flight attendant’s opinion was in direct contravention of the airline’s own policies, so it doesn’t seem plausible that the airline expressed the opinion that the passenger could not permissibly fly. Moreover there is no allegation that the passenger’s “physical or mental condition” prevented them from complying with safety instructions, only that their age precluded them from doing so without a car seat (again, reportedly there was no concern that the passenger was unable to sit upright).

In fact, the airline itself even hedges a bit here. There’s a sleight of hand. They do not say that the flight attendant did conclude (erroneously) that there was a safety issue, only that if they had concluded such a safety issue existed specific to this passenger they’d have been justified in removing the passenger.

However the underlying point here is that according to American Airlines, a flight attendant can remove passengers for any reason or no reason, provided that they subjectively determine on their own that the passenger cannot comply with safety instructions. Would a racist flight attendant determining that no African American passengers are capable of following safety protocols be justified in removing all African Americans? The airline’s plain language Contract of Carriage and even international tariff fail to mention the words race or discrimination.

American’s position, as reportedly taken in this suit, is unconscionable. American clearly should have refunded the ticket rather than putting themselves in the position of making these stupid arguments. A trial date has been set for October.

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. I stopped flying American a while ago even though I had points when they cut their O’Hare international destinations to the bone. Glad I did.

  2. I stopped flying American after they canceled my flight w/no explanation to a once in a lifetime event. Then left my luggage in another flight even though it was one way and I checked my bag 2 hrs ahead. And another time when I waited in a bus on the tarmac because the plane’s pilot hadn’t arrived.I still have $$ with them and also points with them but refuse to redeem them. They can have it. Never again.

  3. HAHAHA. Once, I had an FAA Certified Flight Seat (Sit ‘N Stroll) which converts from a stroller to a carseat. The flight attendant didn’t let me use it, instead told me to seat my child it in the seat without it (they made me gate check the Sit ‘N Stroll). I had used the Sit ‘N Stroll on other flights with no issue. It really boils down to the specific flight attendant(s).

  4. American Airlines in my opinion is one of the worst Airline the industry. I had a experience with them and has no plans in flying with them ever again.

  5. It looks like the cable companies and the airlines are in a contest on who can be the most-hated business in America. Both of these business types need to be heavily regulated, as it seems that both heavily abuse the American people.

  6. This is an example of the, many, reasons it sucks to live in an AA fortress hub city. Pity those of us in CLT and DFW.

  7. After reading this I definitely will not fly American. The fact they stand behind the stewardess that was totally wrong does it for me. I understand standing behind your employees, but that has going too far.

  8. Fairly comical all I heard were entitled parents. I have the right to intrude on you’re peace and quiet. I have the right to go on vacation and intrude on you. Oh bc my child is young. Er um sure. Or you could be an adult and drive. Let’s be honest you are bringing your infant who won’t remember anything bc you are selfish. It’s all for you.
    As far as people whining about me, I’m silent on flights, like everyone should be. And I help people put luggage up. So you all would like me. Conversely, when people cry why did i get SSSS maybe realize you should respect other people’s space or you might get put on the list or keep popping off on here. Cheers

  9. I guess life would be a lot nicer, if everyone was like me. I am a 72yr crumpy old man that has never ever been in a plane. I love to drive

  10. Flight attendants who do not know the rules should look it up, there should be a place where they get the proper/correct info. It isn’t too much to ask for these so called safety people to know the rules.

  11. Next time we’re in a recession, and all the legacy airlines come begging for money, let’s tell them to pound salt. I hope American goes out of business they’re the worst airline in existence.

  12. We had a similar thing almost 4 years ago. A racist gate agent was telling us we couldn’t bring a personal item small carrying pouch on board. She got her (also black) friend who she claimed was the supervisor but wasn’t. We ended up getting their pictures (they tried to hide their badges, but knowing gate and time doesn’t matter because they can look up the shift), and emailed to AA VP of customer service. I got a call back from someone important, who stood behind the employee. When I said the online policy AND phone customer service had both said we were in the right, they still insisted those were wrong. I suggested updating to clear any confusion and he said no they’ll just leave it as is. I asked about the fake supervisor and he said it wasn’t a big deal so they weren’t going to do anything.

    Never again flying AA.

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