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Editor’s Note: Thatcher A. Stone teaches aviation law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law and represents passengers as an attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Story highlights

Aviation lawyer: I got bumped from a flight, sued the airline and won the case

Passengers must follow instructions of flight crew and airlines need to follow the rules on bumping, author writes

CNN  — 

Americans have been consumed with the story of the United Airlines passenger dragged off a flight after he was bumped – and refused to leave. It’s always a mistake to ignore the instructions of the flight crew. But United needs to rethink the way it handled this case.

Thatcher A. Stone

As an aviation lawyer, I have a professional interest in the issue of bumping passengers off flights. But I also have a personal one.

When my then 13-year-old daughter and I, heading to Colorado for a ski trip, were bumped by an airline in 2004, we sued. The airline had failed to pay us the right amount of money and had not given us written instructions. We lost our hotel deposit and we didn’t get our luggage back for four days. We won the case – and $3,100 from Continental Airlines – and I was on every major TV network.

Then, as now, people were just fed up with the airlines, but if you misbehave, the airlines are fed up with you.

Ever since 9/11, flight crews and cabin crews have been relatively insistent that passengers follow the rules. This is not hard to understand, given that many employees at American and United knew people who were working the day of the terrorist attacks and who lost their lives in New York or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Airplanes are not cars and offer many risks that buses, trains and automobiles just cannot match: Altitude, weather and clear air turbulence, to name a few.

For that reason, the US pilots and cabin crews particularly are extremely well trained and will save your life in an instant when a problem develops. But in order to maintain safety in a metal tube with only one or two alleyways, the cabin crew needs your cooperation.

If you become unruly, they can throw you off in an instant. Without recourse. If you refuse to follow a crew member’s instructions, they can throw you off and send you to jail.

Anybody who thinks they can make a ruckus on a US airplane and get away with it is seriously mistaken. I see this every day in my law practice. On the other hand, sometimes the airlines go too far and can be held responsible.

Recently we won a jury verdict in New York federal court for a young family that had been seriously mistreated on a return flight to New York from Cairo. They had purchased tickets for their infant child, but when they got to the airport, the airline could not find the ticket in the system. Instead of helping them or admitting any mistake, airline employees mocked the family and when they objected, had them arrested and incarcerated, the jury found. The airline paid dearly for this misbehavior, but these circumstances are rare.

On the other hand, the public – through the FAA – has been very good at making the airlines do the right thing when they overbook a plane, which they do every day.

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    The rules provide that a passenger who has a reservation and who is asked to give up their seat because the flight is overbooked is entitled to a lot of money and the airline is required to fill them in on their rights right away. In writing.

    Compensation depends on how quickly the airline can get one to the next place one is booked to, and can reach 400% of your paid fare or up to $1,350 if they cannot get you to your next destination within four hours. If they can get you somewhere you are booked to within an hour or two, the compensation is much less. And if you’re flying on a free ticket, you’re entitled to compensation equal to the ticket cost in your class of service. So if you’re in coach on a free ticket with miles, you’re entitled to compensation as if you had paid full price.

    Judging from the video, which may not tell the full story, it doesn’t look like the people who escorted the United passenger off his flight gave him the immediate written instructions they are required to do by law. It also does not look like they told him about his compensation rights.

    Unfortunately, this is a typical game all of the airlines play. They start offering compensation and travel that is less than what is required under the FAA rule hoping that people who haven’t been properly informed about their rights will take the cheap offer. When this doesn’t work they slowly raise the offers.

    Flying for vacation travel or work on a modern US carrier’s plane can be enjoyable and pleasant. Just do what you are told by the crew. And, to fulfill their part of the bargain, airlines need to follow the rules and treat passengers who get bumped fairly.

    If United had taken a senior gate agent and brought him onto the airplane and said to the doctor, “here is our written policy about denied boarding. I know you are in a seat, but you are mistaken that we can’t remove you. But guess what? You will get refunded whatever you paid if we can get you to your destination within an hour and if it takes longer you could get up to 400 percent.”

    He would likely have gotten up and gotten off the plane in a second.