Passenger rights and
the contract of carriage

When a passenger takes an airline flight, that passenger enters into a contract with that airline. For US airlines, this contract is usually referred to as a "contract of carriage," which states the terms under which that passenger travels.

The contract usually runs for several pages and is typically available on that airline's web site. The contract, which on some airlines may have names like "conditions of carriage" or "acceptance of passengers," commonly covers the following areas:

  • Fares, ticketing, and reservations
  • Fees and surcharges in addition to the ticket cost
  • Delays, cancellations, and denied boarding (bumping)
  • Baggage
  • Travel by infants and children, including unaccompanied minors
  • Animals, including service animals
  • Acceptable passenger conduct
  • International travel
  • Complaints
  • Legal liability limitations

For most passengers on most flights, the contract of carriage is not a concern so long as there are no problems or special circumstances involving that flight. When there is an issue, particularly one where the passenger and the airline are in disagreement as to how to resolve an issue, the terms of the contract of carriage can give the passenger a good idea of whether the issue will be resolved in their favor.

Key issues to consider
There are several issues to consider when it comes to the contract of carriage that may come as a surprise, especially if a passenger violation leads to a missed flight, monetary losses, or to even getting banned from the airline. Some of these issues include the following:

  • There is a dress code: If a passenger who is dressed in a way that the airline considers to be lewd or offensive may be refused boarding unless the offensive clothing is removed or changed.
  • Passengers must behave: A disorderly passenger may be asked to stop doing an activity that is disturbing to other passengers.
  • There is no freedom of speech: In the US, passengers can legally carry in their baggage almost any kind of printed or electronic entertainment, but airline typically don't allow passengers to play any kind of audio content without headphones, or any display any kind of sexually related material in view of other passengers. They may also prevent passengers from displaying other kinds of content that may be disturbing to other passengers. This may include things such as looking at pictures or images that are violent, pornographic, or otherwise disturbing to other passengers.
  • Passengers must obey airline staff: Passengers are required to follow the directions or orders of flight crew members, flight attendants, counter agents, and gate agents or risk being denied boarding or removed from the aircraft.
  • Passengers must not be intoxicated: Passengers who appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs may be denied boarding or removed from the aircraft.
  • Passengers must not interfere with the crew: Refusing cabin crew or flight crew request, striking a crew member, or other behavior that gets in the way of the crew's duties could lead to being taken off the aircraft or possibly to criminal charges.

    International travel
    An airline may have a different contract for domestic and international travel, so be sure that you are reviewing the right one. In addition, there may be specific rules or restrictions when flying to or from a particular country, so make sure that you are getting the most relevant information.

    When in doubt, read the contract
    If you have any question about what you can and can't do on a particular airline, or if you have a special situation that lead to an issue or other complication with your flight, you may want to review the airline's contract of carriage before you fly. These contract should be available on the airline's web site or from an airline's representative at the airport.

    Complaint resources
    How to complain
    Getting bumped from a flight

    Baggage resources
    Baggage issues
    Carry on baggage
    Flying with cash
    Flying with batteries
    How to fly with a sex toy
    Flying and marijuana

    Child travel resources
    Unaccompanied child travel
    Traveling with children

    Passenger behavior
    How to fly with pornography
    Personal electronic devices

    Passenger rights and the contract of carriage -- Revised: 22 September 2015