Aug 28 2012

What can you do if an airline pilot won’t let you fly?

The obvious follow-up question to, Does an airline pilot have the right to refuse to let you fly?, is “What can you do if an airline pilot won’t let you fly?”

Arijit Guha, one of the victims (his wife was also barred from the flight, merely for her association with her husband) in the incident that prompted our previous article, has said that he’s filing complaints with the airline (probably a waste of time, unless his case generates enough bad press and costs Delta enough customers that the airline decides it’s worth paying off the Guhas to get them to shut up), the local police (who detained and harassed the Guhas but don’t seem to have been directly responsible for preventing them from traveling), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (more likely than the police to at least conduct a pro forma investigation and provide a pro forma response to the complaint).

We suspect, however, that these complaints will be unavailing as long as Delta Air Lines, the cops, and the TSA checkpoint staff stick to their story that sole responsibility for denying the Guhas boarding on Delta Flight 1176 from Buffalo to Atlanta on August 18, 2012, rests with the pilot of that flight in the exercise of his or her “discretion”.

The only way to hold that pilot responsible for his or her actions, short of a civil lawsuit against the pilot (something the Guhas should consider), is a complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration against the pilot for violating Federal aviation regulations or rules for “airmen” [sic].

How would this work? We consulted several pilots, but none of them wanted to talk about how a passenger (or would-be passenger) could get a pilot in trouble with the FAA. Some pilots simply demurred. Others suggested that the real responsibility for denial of transportation rests with airline and/or government policies for which the pilot shouldn’t be blamed.

In practice, though, the “pilot’s discretion” for denial of transportation is likely to be a fallback rationalization on the part of the airline (unfairly putting the blame on a pilot who may not be at fault and almost certainly would prefer not to get involved) offered only when there is no other available legal excuse for the airline’s denial of transport.

If you are told that you are being kept off a flight on the pilot’s orders, that probably means that (1) there is no legal basis for the airline, the local police, or the TSA (all of whom are likely to have a go at you before the “pilot’s discretion” is invoked) to keep you off the flight, and (2) you can, and should, hold the pilot personally responsible for either rescinding his or her order against you or justifying that order to the authorities responsible for licensing and oversight of pilots’ actions. Read More