New DOT Rule Raises Involuntary Denied Boarding And Mishandled Bag Compensation

The Department of Transportation has finalized its rule increasing the minimum amount of cash an airline has to pay a passenger for involuntarily denying them boarding, and banning airlines from denying boarding to passengers that have already boarded. The rule increases the maximum amount airlines can be on the hook for when they mishandle domestic checked baggage as well. These changes go into effect April 13, 2021.

Prompted by David Dao being dragged off of a United Express flight and bloodied by Chicago aviation police, Congress passed the TICKETS Act (Transparency Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe Act of 2017). The Department of Transportation is now implementing elements of that law.

Higher Involuntary Denied Boarding (“Bump”) Payouts

The amount of money an airline is legally required to pay you for involuntarily denying you boarding depends on how long your delay is as a result and has been either $675 (for 1-2 hour domestic delays, or 1-4 hour international delays) or $1350 (for 2+ hour domestic or 4+ hour international delays).

These amounts are going up to $775 and $1550, respectively, for flights departing a U.S. city where you have a confirmed reservation, checked in on time, and arrived at the gate on time. This is adopted in accordance with existing rules that call for regular escalation of these amounts.

The new rule appears to broaden the flights that the involuntary bump rule applies to. While no compensation is due when an airline swaps an aircraft for a smaller plane, or when the bump is due to weight and balance issues on an aircraft with 60 or fewer seats, it appears that planes holding fewer than 30 passengers are no longer exempt from the rule.

Furthermore, the rule clarifies and underscores that this maximum legal required payout does not prevent airlines from offering customers more, as some airlines in the past seemed to suggest.

After the Dao incident of course airlines began going to great lengths to avoid involuntarily denying boarding to passengers, offering much higher compensation amounts for passengers to volunteer to take another flight.

It became news when Delta paid a woman $4000 to take a later flight the same day (which was perfectly convenient for her). Even more so when United paid out $10,000 to a passenger.

When American Airlines swapped out a Boeing 787-9 for a smaller Boeing 787-8 they may have given out $250,000 in compensation to passengers who had to take a later flight, even though Department of Transportation rules wouldn’t have required compensation at all.

However even before the pandemic airlines started reining in these costs and that only accelerated during Covid-19. So know your rights.

No Bumping Passengers That Have Already Boarded

What people reacted so severely to in the David Dao incident was that crew who needed to travel to operate another flight were assigned Dr. Dao’s seat after he had already boarded. There was a general moral sense that crossing the threshold of the aircraft gave him a greater moral claim on the seat than being denied boarding before he made it onto the plane.

And this distinction is now codified in federal regulations. Airlines have not been able to involuntarily deny boarding to a passenger after a passenger has been accepted for boarding since October 5, 2018 because the TICKETS Act didn’t require a change in federal regulations, however the new rule allows the DOT to take enforcement action against violations.

That said it is not carte blanche to passengers, knowing they cannot be removed from an aircraft. The airline can still take measures it deems necessary for “safety, security, or health risk” and doesn’t limit the authority of the pilot of the aircraft provided for in 14 CFR 121.533. (It also doesn’t let passengers off the hook for penalties in the case of interfering with crew members.)

This rule is often mistakenly described as saying that an airline cannot bump a passenger after scanning or collecting their boarding pass. That’s not accurate, according to the DOT rule,

[A] carrier agent’s physical collection of a paper boarding pass alone does not indicate an acceptance of the passenger to board the aircraft. …After the physical collection or electronic scanning, the gate agent may have reasons to not permit a passenger to board (e.g., the agent may find out that the passenger was trying to board a wrong flight, or may find out that the passenger has been selected to be involuntarily denied boarding). In those situations, the carrier may legally deny the passenger boarding because the passenger has not been accepted by a gate agent.

Higher Mishandled Baggage Liability Limit

Airline liability for mishandled domestic checked bags is currently limited to $3000. This changes to $3500. This is adopted in accordance with existing rules that call for regular escalation of these amounts.

(HT: @Travel33t)

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. Dr. David Dao is a hero to Asian-Americans. We’re a disadvantaged, undervalued group because our way of being (polite, submissive) clashes with the toxic aggression of the United States. We Asians rarely stand up for ourselves. Dr. David Dao stood up for himself–and in so doing–for all the rest of us. Thank you, Dr. Dao!

  2. I’d really love to see a rule where airlines were required to pay a certain amount for bags delayed over 12 hours, $50 a day for example.

  3. @Christian — it’s already an industry practice to compensate for toiletries and clothes in delayed baggage

  4. @Boraxo A check is the same as cash, even though legally it’s not the same. Either way, they can’t get away with just a voucher.

  5. @ptahcha I thought all payment was in the form of a dollar amount of credit for future flight. Now they actually have to cut a check that one can deposit in one’s bank?

  6. @Jason – Apologies, I was vague. The $50 a day I propose would be a penalty on top of expenses.

  7. There is no change in the type of aircraft subject to denied boarding regulations. The regulations regarding removing a revenue passenger from a flight, as codified under 14 CFR 250.7, has a broader scope than the other provisions of section 250.

    The stated dollar amounts of denied boarding compensation are not necessarily the minimum compensation that can be offered. As stated in section 250,5, it is actually $775 or 200% of the one way fare to the first stop and $1550 or 400% of the one way fare to the first stop, whichever is lower, for the applicable length of delay and destination of the flight.

    If a gate agent scans the boarding pass and indicates the passenger should board, that is, or should be, sufficient to prove the agent “accepted” the passenger. Otherwise airlines could play games and contend that even a seated passenger could be kicked off because he was not officially accepted for some concocted reason.

  8. What is so disgraceful is that it took to get a law like this. (Because airlines didn’t feel they should treat their passengers with decency and dignity.) It took:
    1) A significant concussion
    2) A serious broken nose, injury to the sinuses
    3) Reconstructive surgery to repair his broken nose
    4) The loss of two front teeth
    If United had done the right thing and offered better compensation, they probably would have gotten volunteers. Instead they decided to offer a chump change in vouchers (monopoly money — only good on United and usually comes with all kinds of restrictions).

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