Nov 23 2010

Airlines threaten illegal actions against travelers who opt out of groping

Can you get your money back if you opt out of the TSA’s assault on your freedom? Yes, but airlines don’t want to admit that.  (That’s nothing new.)  You may have to put up a fight.

Here’s what’s happening, and what you can do:

With National Opt-Out Day coming up, travel journalist Christopher Elliott contacted several airlines to see how they would handle requests for refunds from ticketed passengers who aren’t allowed to fly because they opt out of being x-rayed or groped.

Disturbingly, several airlines (American, Southwest, United/Continental, and US Airways) told Elliott that they would not give refunds to such passengers holding nonrefundable tickets.

Airlines can’t just make up new rules governing tickets and refunds after tickets are issued. Those rules are published in airlines’ tariffs and conditions of carriage, as filed with the Department of Transportation.

Almost all airlines’ conditions of carriage provide that, if an airline refuses to transport you, you are entitled to a full and unconditional “involuntary refund” of all fares, fees, and charges, even if the fare at which your ticket was issued  is otherwise completely nonrefundable.

American Airlines, for example, told Elliott:

“Our refund rules that are in place now, apply,” says a spokeswoman. “If the customer has a refundable ticket, then we will refund. If the customer has a non-refundable ticket, then we can offer a voucher.”

But American’s actual rules are contained in their conditions of carriage, as follows:

Involuntary Refunds

In the event the refund is required because of American’s failure to operate on schedule or refusal to transport, the following refund will be made directly to you –

  1. If the ticket is totally unused, the full amount paid (with no service charge or refund penalty), or
  2. If the ticket is partially used, the applicable fare for the unused segment(s).

If American or another airline with similar terms in its contractual conditions of carriage refuses to give you a full and unconditional refund (not merely a voucher), they are liable to you for damages if you sue them, and liable to enforcement action and fine by the Department of Transportation.

So what’s the best strategy if you already have a ticket and want to opt out of virtual strip-search and groping?

First, consult the provisions of the airline’s “Conditions of Carriage” governing refusal to transport and involuntary refunds.  Most airlines’ terms are essentially identical to American’s, but others may be different. All airlines are required by Federal law and DOT regulations to have their full tariff and conditions of carriage available for inspection at all ticket counters, but they often don’t.  So it might be helpful to print out the relevant portions and bring them with you to the airport.

Second, you have to actually show up at the airport and present yourself for check-in on time.  No-shows are not entitled to any refund.

Third, you should try to document that the airline (not the TSA or TSA contractors) refused to transport you.  If you check in with the airline, online or at the airport, and then refuse to be x-rayed or groped, you’ll probably get the runaround: The airline will tell you that they aren’t responsible for the actions of the TSA, or that they were “just following orders” from the TSA. The TSA will claim that it was up to the airline whether to transport you.

So the best strategy may be not to check in or get a boarding pass online. Instead, present yourself at the airline’s check-in counter, and tell them that you decline to show ID or “consent” to a virtual strip-search or groping.  When they say, “If you don’t show ID, you can’t fly,” demand an immediate, full, and unconditional refund.

If they refuse to give you a refund on the spot, demand that they give you written confirmation that:

  1. You presented yourself for check-in on time;
  2. The airline refused to transport you;
  3. You requested a refund; and
  4. The airline refused to give you a refund.

Tell them you need all this to document your eligibility for refund. Don’t leave the counter without either a full refund or a written statement to this effect, on airline letterhead, legibly signed (preferably by the airline’s “Station Manager” for that airport), a printout of your PNR (reservation record) whowing that this informaitonn has been saved as “remarks” in the PNR.  Don’t be put off by being told that “all the information is in the computer”, without youyr getting a printed copy, and that you will have to follow up later.

Say something like, “I insist on either a full and immediate refund, or a letter signed by the station manager coinfirming that I presented myself for check-in on time, that you refused to transport me because I wouldn’t show ID or ‘consent’ to ‘screening’, that I requested a refund, and that you have refused to provide me with a full refund.  I need this to document my eligibility for a refund.”

If you like, you could add, “and the complaint I’ll be making against you to the Department of Transportation for refusing to comply with your conditions of carriage.”

Once you have that documentation in hand, you can follow up with a lawsuit against the airline for damages, and/or a complaint to the DOT requesting that they open a formal investigation and fine the airline for violating DOT regulations by failing to act in accordance with their published and filed conditions of carriage.

12 thoughts on “Airlines threaten illegal actions against travelers who opt out of groping

  1. Pingback: Protesting enhanced pat downs and naked scans

  2. But the airlines are not refusing to transport. The passenger would be refusing to go through the airport’s security. The airline wants you to fly with them because the people are the ones who give them money. There is just another organization between you and the airplane.

  3. I downloaded the Conditions of Carriage for the airline we’re supposed to be flying on, and it does say that we are entitled to a refund if they refuse to board us because (1) we refuse to be searched; or (2) we don’t present proper ID. But it also stipulates that we have to show up at the ticket counter on the day of our flight, which will mean that we won’t have time to drive to our destination (3 days driving versus 5 hours flying). Looks like Grandma is going to be upset with us! But at least my children will not become involuntary porn stars or abuse victims, and that’s all that really matters.

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  7. So has anyone tried this with Continental? I was supposed to fly tomorrow, but refuse to be abused by our government just to get from point A to B. Here is what Cont contract of carriage says; reads like they even have future body cavity searches covered.

    Passengers and/or their baggage are subject to security screening, including but not limited to, security profiling, physical pat-downs and inspections, x-ray screening, manual bag searches, questioning of Passengers, and use of electronic or other detectors or screening or security devices, in the sole discretion of the government, airport or CO, and with or without the Passenger’s presence, consent or knowledge. Neither CO nor its employees or agents is liable for any damage, loss, delay (including refusal to transport), confiscation of property, injury or other harm relating to or arising out of security screening or Passenger’s failure to submit to or comply with such security screening.

  8. Wouldn’t ‘refusal to carry’ you only come up if you had fulfilled all the requirements they placed on you and they still wouldn’t take you?

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  12. Why would you buy a plane ticket knowing they are going to require you to show id and be searched? Is there some way to board the plane without this happening?

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