Suing an Airline and Available Remedies

suing an airline

Flying seems to have become more difficult and fraught with headaches in recent years. From lost luggage to plane crashes and everything between, many issues can arise when flying airlines. When in these situations, it often feels hopeless—you against an enormous corporation—but all is not lost. Here are some available forms of recourse if you feel you have been wronged by your airline. 

Delays and Cancellations

In the U.S., airlines are not required by law to financially compensate you for a canceled flight, and are permitted to delay or cancel flights with virtually no consequences. While not required, some airlines will provide lodging and meals if they agreed to do so in their Contracts of Carriage. It’s important when buying your ticket to compare the protections under the carriers’ Contracts of Carriage. This contract may be your only form of recourse in the event of a cancellation or delay.

A “tarmac delay” is another form of delay you may experience flying. A tarmac delay is the holding of an aircraft on the ground either before taking off or after landing with no opportunity for the passengers to deplane. When a tarmac delay occurs, passengers are entitled to notification every 30 minutes about the status of the delay; an opportunity to deplane if the carrier voluntarily chooses to open the aircraft door; snacks and water after two hours; and, operable bathrooms. For domestic flights, passengers must be allowed to deplane after three hours, and four hours for international flights. Tarmac delays are actionable inconveniences as failure to comply with regulations can result in penalties of hundreds of thousands of dollars for the airline.


In the U.S., it is legal for airlines to overbook flights, or sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane as long as they give passengers sufficient notice. When a flight is overbooked, carriers often request volunteers to take a later flight. Volunteers may be offered compensation by the carrier. If there are insufficient volunteers, carriers are allowed to “bump” a passenger from a plane. Under U.S. law, if you are involuntarily denied boarding, you are entitled to immediate payment of a minimum of 200% of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $650 for a one to two hour arrival delay, and up to 400% of your one-way fare up to a maximum of $1,300 for more than a two-hour delay. Airlines usually offer compensation in the form of ticket vouchers, which normally far exceeds the amount of compensation required; however, it is important to note that passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding due to overbooking are entitled to payment in cash/check. 

Unfortunately, for delays, cancellations, and overbooking, there is no private right of action under U.S. consumer protection regulations. Therefore, passengers cannot sue the airline themselves for these problems; they must instead rely on the U.S. Department of Transportation to enforce the rules. Your best bet in these situations is to determine whether the airline’s actions have violated their own Contract of Carriage.

Lost Luggage, Property Damage, Injuries

Misplaced, broken, or lost luggage issues are claims that are often brought in small claims court. Small claims court gives you the opportunity to recoup a relatively small amount of money (typically, less than $5,000) through the court system. However, unless you declare the value of the property ahead of time, notify the airline, and purchase insurance, your ability to recover the monetary value of your things may be limited.

International flights are covered by the Warsaw Convention and the Montreal Protocols, which combined, cover all international travel within the countries that signed the agreements. If you did not declare the monetary value of your luggage beforehand or buy additional insurance, your monetary loss is determined by the weight of the checked baggage, not its actual contents. Flights within the U.S. have similar regulations. Your rights are very basic and are explained in the terms and conditions set forth on your ticket.

You may, however, be able to sue an airline for injuries sustained in flight, from slipping and falling to hitting your head because of turbulence to death caused by a crash. Airlines are held to a high standard of care for their passengers. An airline or common carrier must exercise vigilance in all aspects of aviation, including operation, maintenance, and inspection, loading, boarding and de-boarding of the plane. Airlines are responsible for even the slightest negligence on the part of its employees, and are required to do all that is reasonable under the circumstances to prevent injuries from happening.

If you were injured on an airplane or believe you otherwise have an action against your airline, find an experienced attorney by quickly posting a short summary of your legal needs on Legal Services Link, and let the perfect attorney come to you!

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Posted - 09/21/2017