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Think you're being bullied by an airline or train company? Here's what you can do.

Khalid Salaam
October 20, 2015

Travel safety is so much more than protecting your identity abroad and avoiding dangerous destinations. It's about your fundamental rights, as a traveler, and how to protect yourself when unusual situations or circumstances strike. If you've ever been asked to leave a hotel or to deplane, or if a misunderstanding or a weather delay has ever wrecked your whole trip, you know the challenges that come with paying a company to help you get from point A to point B. Know your options if things get out of hand, and don't get caught off guard.

In April, a Republic Airlines flight from Kansas City to Denver was delayed on the tarmac for a staggering six hours with little food or water. When passengers asked if they could deboard, the flight attendants informed them they could—yet anyone who selected to leave should consider this "their final destination." No connecting tickets would be honored. In other words, passengers were told they would have to buy a new ticket in order to complete their trip. Under Department of Transportation regulations, however, this instruction was a strict violation of travelers' rights.

"[An] airline cannot hold you on the tarmac for more than three hours and after two hours they are required to give you food and beverage," explains Paul Hudson, president of the traveler's advocacy organization TravelersRight.Org. "After three hours they have to return you to the terminal and you can get a refund for whatever you paid for the ticket. Since it's a violation, the airline can be fined up to $27,000 per passenger."

Months later, 11 women traveling through Northern California were asked to leave a train after another passenger in their car complained about their loudness. Lisa Johnson, one of the women in this group, explains that this accusation was false, and that her group wasn't given any alternatives by the maître d'hotel of the Napa Valley Wine Train. They also felt it was a case of character assassination by the train company, who pushed a narrative unfairly labeling the group as unruly.

"It was shut up or get off. We weren't given any other options ... we were told to quiet down because we were being offensive," she details. "How do you take the complaint of one person and that makes you kick off eleven other passengers?"

In the wake of recent terrorism incidents in Paris and Beirut, a renewed sense of fear and distrust has resurfaced in the American psyche. Lack of familiarity with foreign cultures, coinciding with the Cable News Industrial Complex, has put people on pins and needles. There have been several stories in recent weeks involving innocent people on flights being questioned and removed from their seats. On November 17, two gentlemen in Philadelphia were removed from a Southwest Airlines flight for speaking Arabic. On the same day in Baltimore, four people of “Middle Eastern descent” were removed from a Spirit Airlines flight. As reported by authorities, passengers were afraid of one of the men who was reading a news report on his smartphone.

The two aforementioned incidents are certainly outrageous enough on their own, however, they pale in comparison to the ordeal of a Texas lawyer. On a Virgin America flight back to Dallas, an Iranian-American man was barred from boarding a plane by the flight crew. When asked why he was no longer allowed to board, he was told that the crew “didn’t feel comfortable” with him on the flight.  The fact that he is a frequent traveler with TSA PreCheck clearance didn’t matter at all. Later, the airline reimbursed his flight and offered him free flight vouchers as an apology.

Unfortunately, companies do have the right to remove anyone from a plane, train, or hotel without an official or well-articulated reason. The exact motivation may be explained later—in the latter cases, shameles discrimination—but at that very moment when the removal is taking place, they have all discretionary privileges—though they must refund your money. Still, it's worth it to fight, here are a few ways as to how you can best defend your rights.

Social Media

If asked to leave an airline or train, use sites like Periscope and Meerkat to stream real time events or take pictures and put them on Instagram. Twitter is also a way to highlight a personal situation and make the corporate offices aware of your problem. Lisa Johnson's ordeal with the Napa Valley Wine Train went viral, mainly due to her reach on Facebook. 

Lawsuit

Suing a company can be an arduous task. It can be costly and time consuming, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue it. Occasionally, the threat of a lawsuit alone causes some companies to settle. This was the case in 2012, when the husband of a New York City woman sued Delta, KLM Royal Dutch, and Lufthansa because they said she weighed too much to fly. Two years later, the three airlines settled for $6 million. To be fair, Hudson says, success in this regard isn't a high-percentage outcome. "Mostly the courts come down on the side of the carrier. I'd say it's something like 80 percent," he explains. "The idea is that the security of the vessel is paramount."

Talk to Somebody in Corporate

While passive approaches like contacting the Better Business Bureau can work, speaking to a company big wig often results in better outcomes for consumers. Sites like LinkedIn, or even a smart perusal of a company's directory, will often reveal executive contact information. Let them know what happened; perhaps you can save future travelers the distress.

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