Jorge was kicked off a plane in 2013 after complaining to a flight attendant who had been rude to him. Two years later, Lorena was not allowed to board when an airline refused to accept her medical certificate which said she could fly even though she was heavily pregnant. Both names are fictitious but their stories are not. Just like shops and restaurants, airlines also have the right to refuse admission. But while passengers accept the conditions of each carrier by default, few understand what these involve. For example, a passenger who is drunk or behaving offensively can be kicked off a flight without being compensated, although they can file a complaint later.
“These are contracts where the consumer has no negotiating power,” explains Miguel Ángel Serrano, from the legal team of the consumer rights association FACUA. Last week, FACUA filed a complaint against Spanish low-cost airline Vueling for refusing to allow a 24-year-old woman from Granada to board the plane. Laura C. was grounded for wearing what Vueling workers considered to be inappropriate clothing – Laura C. described the outfit as a bodysuit, a one-piece form-fitting garment, but the airplane said it was a swimsuit and asked her to cover up. What happened next made the news: passengers tried to defend the woman and the heated argument was recorded on a video that went viral on social media.
Today the marvelous company Vueling stopped my sister from boarding simply for wearing a bodysuit. Several people gave her clothes so she could “cover herself” and they still did not let her get on.
“Airline conditions cannot go against regulations, nor does the company have the authority to decide how a person can dress, as long as they are respecting the public order,” argues Serrano.
Vueling, however, insists that the issue was not what Laura C. was wearing but the fact that she responded “rudely” to airline staff and “the situation became extreme.” In other words, it was a potential risk to the security of passengers and crew.
Under EU regulations, an airline does not have to compensate a passenger who has been refused on board if they had “reasonable motives” – either the passenger represented a security risk, did not have valid travel documents, or for health concerns.
“Regulations consider overbooking, where there are more passengers than seats, as grounds for refusal, but everything else is company policy,” says Almudena Velázquez, a lawyer for the platform Reclamador.
These are contracts where the consumer has no negotiating power
Miguel Ángel Serrano, FACUA
According to these conditions, the aircraft commander, the top authority in these situations, has the power to divert a flight if a passenger is considered troublesome or dangerous. “Broadly speaking, admission can be denied if a passenger is considered to be behaving inappropriately, but these are generic conditions that can be misinterpreted,” explains Leonor Amador de los Ríos from the law firm Jurídica Aérea.
Low-cost airline Ryanair reserves the right to turn away passengers who have smoked or who have tried to smoke on previous flights (their names are placed on a kind of black list), or who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, while Dutch air carrier KLM and the Spanish airline Iberia can refuse people who have consumed medication that could cause “discomfort, danger or risk to themselves, other passengers, the crew, and goods.” EasyJet does not allow passengers who make bomb threats on board and, like Ryanair, reserves the right to cancel their future flights.
Laura C. has filed a complaint against Vueling and announced she will also report the air carrier to the consumer watchdog in the Balearic Islands, where she was meant to catch her flight. If a passenger wants to claim damages – not just the refunded money – they have to file a request with an arbitrator or start court proceedings, says Velázquez. But according to Amador de los Ríos, many people give up when denied compensation. In the case of Laura C., it is too early to know what will happen. “The good thing is that [the case] has become known because of social media,” says Velázquez. “Companies have to realize that they must act logically and respectfully towards the consumer.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.