Consumer Law

Is the Sky the Limit for Air Fares and Fees

Gone are the days of racing through the airport hallways to catch your plane just before takeoff. No more bringing steaming cups of coffee and overflowing luggage onto the plane. Flying today involves many requirements, limits and precautions. And some are downright annoying.

TSA Swabs for Traces of Explosives

The near-disaster of Christmas Day 2009 has caused the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) to step up security measures. The agency announced on February 18 it will soon begin using hand-held devices to detect traces of explosives.

Portable machines will appear at locations throughout airports, including security lines and gates. Agents take trace samples by swabbing hands, baggage, shoes and other materials carried by passengers.

The process would take a few seconds each time a swab is done, and the swabs are thrown away after each use. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hasn't opposed the new procedures, noting they provide security without invading privacy. However, an ACLU attorney cautioned swabbing shouldn't be done in a discriminatory fashion, and shouldn't be used to perform unconstitutional searches, such as to detect drugs.

Also, the new full-body scan machines are being set up at airports around the country.

Increased Fees for Checked Baggage

For the first time a few years ago, airline passengers encountered fees for checking their baggage. These have been fees increasing among some airlines. Continental, US Airways and United have raised their rates as much as $10 per bag, with higher rates charged for each additional bag. Some charge as much as $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second bag checked. So far, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue don't charge for checking one bag per passenger.

Some passengers are outraged when they arrive at the airport to face these restrictions. Many airlines provide advance warnings, though sometimes in fine print on their tickets or buried within online purchase agreements. Basic rules of contract law govern disputes, although many states have consumer protection laws providing some recourse.

Right to Refuse Passengers

Even though airlines provide public transportation, they can refuse passengers from boarding or staying on a plane, and they can impose fees and charges, even with minimal or no advance warning. It's best to check the airline's web site beforehand to be sure of the requirements.

Kevin Smith, the director and star of the famed independent movie "Clerks," recently made headlines when Southwest Airlines demanded he leave the airplane because he took up more than one seat. Smith declared publicly that he wants a personal apology from the airline, but has steadfastly denied that he'll sue for the forced exit.

A physician and his wife who was then seven months pregnant were forced to leave a Spirit Airlines flight after asking repeatedly for water when the flight was grounded for two hours. The physician and the airline have issued statements describing their view of the situation.

He claimed he pleaded for water for his wife as the plane had become unbearably hot, but was told it was against corporate policy to serve water before takeoff. The airline replied that he was disruptive and made references to terrorism, and his son had kicked an airline employee.

Prepare for Takeoff

If you've been treated poorly or have been forced to follow an airline's rules, your chances of winning a lawsuit are minimal. Your best bet will be to contact the customer service office to lodge a complaint.

However, if you believe you've been the victim of fraud or unlawful discrimination, or have suffered an injury through the fault of an airline, travel agent or tour group, seek the advice of an attorney. The attorney will consider many factors including the extent of the harm or injury, whether you would be likely to win, and the difficulty of proving your injury or damages.

At one time, flying was glamorous, but now it can be a chore. People who travel often usually know the rules, but they're changing fast and furious with little notice so everyone's confused.

The best way to protect yourself is to be calm and collected. Understand that that there are many rules and check them before you fly. If it's something out of your control, know the staff are following instructions as well.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I be arrested for not leaving a plane when asked to?
  • Can I start a class action to sue airlines over their increased baggage fees?
  • Can I refuse to be swabbed for explosives?
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