Should Passengers Compensate Airlines Where They Cause Delays Or Diversions?

Filed Under: Travel

I’m sure you’ve heard stories where flights are delayed, turned around, or diverted because of particular passengers.

These could be issues outside of the passengers’ control, such as medical diversions, or could be as a result of passengers causing problems because they have too much to drink, or otherwise cause sufficient trouble to the point that the pilots decide to change the flight path.

We have largely moved away from covering individual incidents of passenger behaviour here at OMAAT, as we don’t know enough about the passengers’ personal situations that may have led to their behaviour.

But what we do know is that these incidents cost airlines a lot of money.

Whether it is the extra fuel involved in turning the plane around to its origin, or the accommodation and re-booking costs in cancelling the flight and moving passenger to other flights, this can get expensive.

Where passengers become unruly and cost an airline money we may hear that the airline bans the passenger from that airline (or airline group) for life, to stop this incident from happening again, or they may press charges against the passenger based on their behaviour on the flight.

But what happens after that?

I came across an interesting story where a passenger on a WestJet flight from Calgary to London had too much to drink prior to boarding, and then became aggressive towards the crew during the flight and refused to take his seat.

The pilot decided to turn the plane around back to Calgary, but was forced to dump 20,000 pounds of fuel before it was safe to land. I’m not going to link to the news articles covering the incident, nor name the passenger, as that passenger’s actions, reasons behind it and other personal background are not the point of the article. It’s more about what the airlines should do about the losses they suffer.

This WestJet diversion with all that dumping of fuel was obviously a huge cost to the airline. So should they try and recoup this cost from the passenger who caused it? Banning a passenger from an airline won’t recoup the costs the airline has suffered.

What happened in this instance was that a Canadian court prosecuted the passenger for their actions. WestJet requested CAD$65,000 in damages for the cost of turning the flight around in line with their costs incurred, although I suspect their actual costs were higher.

The Canadian court ultimately determined that the passenger should pay ~CAD$21,000 in restitution to WestJet for the costs incurred by the airline to return the plane back to Calgary.

As this was a criminal case, WestJet still has the right to sue the passenger in a civil court for any remaining costs they have incurred, given they were only awarded a third of the costs they originally claimed.

I’ll be interested to see if they do.

Any damages awarded to an airline against a passenger by a court don’t seem to make news nearly as often as the actual diversion event does.

So I’m left to wonder how often airlines go through the trouble of trying to recoup these costs, or if they just write it off as a cost of doing business in the same way that poor weather would also incur diversion and cancellation costs.

Bottom line

I agree that where a passenger does something within their own control to cause an airline financial loss, they should compensate the airline for that loss. That being said, the loss may be so large that the passenger is in no financial position to actually ever repay that amount to the airline, even if they want to. In this WestJet case if the passenger could only ever pay $20,000, is there much point in the airline pursuing three times that amount?

I’ve never heard of an airline asking a passenger who suffered a medical issue to compensate them for their costs to divert, and I think that’s a clear and fair line in the sand to draw.

My personal opinion – if a passenger does something within their control that they shouldn’t that costs the airline they should pay for it, while if it’s something outside of their control they should not.

What do you guys think? Should passengers financially compensate airlines where they cause flight delays or diversions? Should this only be for behaviour within their control?

  1. I think there is merit it pursing damages in the civil courts – EVEN IF – there is limited to no real possibility of recouping that award.

    I think there is some merit in the deterrent effect.. in that I think it sends a message that a carrier will pursue legitimate damages when such comes from a proven (by virtue of a an associated earlier criminal case disposition) case and that it does not matter if you’re a person of limited, moderate or upper-end means. I think the message might be that the carrier will come after you for their losses – regardless of what you (as the offender) have in terms of garnishable/seizable assets.

    What I’ve wondered is what’s the implications of fellow passengers seeking civil judgments against the offending passenger following their criminal conviction for said crime? To me, that’s a bigger matter and one that I think is more real-world if you will. After all, if the genesis to a passengers loss – be that lost vacation time, forfeited pre-paid serivices or such, is a direct result of a persons (convicted) criminal actions, then why shouldn’t each individual passenger also be able to sue for their losses?

    Bankruptcy? Sure.. that’s an option on some cases (as per local or national law) and that might extinguish any hope of actual payment of awards.. but bankruptcy isn’t always an easy or “simple” event as it will, for many, have long lasting impacts by virtue of credit scoring etc.

  2. Airlines very rarely take action against passengers for these kinds of situations. It’s a cost of doing business.

    That said, EU261/2004 still requires an airline to pay compensation to a passenger in the case of a delay, even if the delay was caused by the passenger’s own actions, unless the airline can demonstrate that they took every precaution to prevent the passenger’s actions from disrupting the flight.

  3. What about the other passengers inconvenienced by the actions of one? Are they entitled to compensation for lost time, missed connections etc…?

  4. Absolutely not. Despite what the US legal system will tell you, corporations are NOT equal to individuals. Even when an individual does the wrong thing, to completely destroy their entire future (which is what the sort of debt will cause the large majority of people) is ludicrous. And individuals (especially those who fly commercially) would not have the resources for a proper legal defense.

  5. In the example you provided, I’m just curious why the air marshal did not act (I just realized this wasn’t a US flight… but isn’t there a Canadian equivalent?) Given all the airport security we have nowadays, that person doesn’t have any dangerous objects that can kill anyone. Certainly the crew and passengers outnumbered him so I’d imagine they could have controlled him rather than turn the plane around, dump fuel, and cost the airline $$$ of money.

  6. If you’re going to make drunk people pay for diversions, you should also make people whose known medical condition or age or frailty or pregnancy pay for medical diversions

  7. @LongWayAround – you’re right. In the US, corporations and individuals are not equal. That is to say that corporations are considered much more important. Based on how consumer law is set up in the USA, I’d say this type of thing will likely be introduced there.

  8. I wonder why they would let him board in the first place when he had too much to drink ‘prior to boarding’. They could have turned him away when boarding. Also, legally in many European countries, if you are drunk, you can not be held fully accountable for your actions. Quite frankly, this seems a typical US story… can’t imagine an airline suing the passenger in Europe or, even less, in Asia.

  9. How to charge them? And a lot of decisions such as diverting due to medical, is not their own decision, are the captains, who will be responsible in that case? What happens if they book through a travel agency?

  10. Yes, definitely. I’m not sure if they should be forced to pay for all the cost but at least they should be heavily fined. If that starts to happen, that kind of incident will be a lot less frequent.

    But airlines should divert only and just only when it’s really necessary. I’ve seen some diversions in the past that sure look like overreaction.

  11. To the question in the title: an emphatic “yes.”

    Medical reasons are an exception provided the passenger did not take on excessive risk (like pregnant women very near term or people with severe edema boarding a long flight).

    Passengers who willingly cause a diversion should be prosecuted, fined, banned and made to pay some sort of restitution. If that results in a bankruptcy, so be it. Make as public an example of these people as possible. Word will get out – probably very slowly – that the airlines aren’t screwing around. And I really wish there were more follow-up on the consequences. Of course, one of the basic rules of PR is to get any issues out of the media ASAP regardless of who is at fault.

    Drinking on planes and in airport establishments isn’t going anywhere as there is way too much money being made. I don’t like blame being placed on anybody but the individual involved. A lot of seasoned drinkers can be completely loaded and still act straight just long enough to be served. Then again, it’s usually not the seasoned drinkers that are the problem.

    I fly a lot and fortunately the most I’ve been caught up in was a return to the gate after some passengers got mouthy with the crew during taxi. It was an international flight and the delay was almost two hours as their checked bags had to be taken off and the fuel topped off. It was just enough of a delay for a bunch of missed connections.

  12. Yes, but there’s a caveat. If someone has a heart attack or something involuntary, then no. For anything voluntary like an uncivilized, aggressive, or drunk passenger, then definitely.

  13. Should Airlines compensate passengers for delays ?

    If I am as a passenger be 5 minutes late – I miss my flight – if the airline is 5 minutes late, nothing happens – is that fair ?

  14. I wonder how commonplace this could become if the airlines placed a clause for it in their standard contract of carriage. I imagine the vast majority of folks that fly don’t read it.

  15. The sad world we live in is that people will claim compensation for medical diversions as they don’t care about the welfare of others

    However there are many well reported cases with wealthy people causing disruptions. Many travelling on company business. I believe there was a Canadian case involving a well knows telecoms company. In which case the carrier can sue the company

  16. What if another passenger loses an important meeting or something due to the diversion caused by an unruly passenger. Should that passenger be compensated as well? I believe so.

  17. Ben if you are 5 mins late then claim on your insurance if it’s delayed taxi etc

    5 minutes ?!

    People think it is so easy to hold a flight. They have no idea and think it’s like driving their car to the shops

  18. “The sad world we live in is that people will claim compensation for medical diversions as they don’t care about the welfare of others”

    I don’t know that one automatically negates the other. I DO think you can care about the health welfare of others AND still addrsss economic issues/losses related to it.

  19. I’m sure there is some fairness to this idea as long as laws are changed to compensate passengers when they are inconvenienced by the airlines.

    Flying several hundred thousand miles a year mostly on AA and UA I have had more than 30% of my flights delayed/cancelled or somehow changed. I’m usually on tight meeting schedules. I could also list a dozen other problems I’ve had in the last year alone with air travel I’ve paid for and not received what I paid for, but I’ve come to accept it is part of travel and the airline always wins.

    I wouldn’t want to see the airlines compensated for one more thing until they start honoring everything I’ve paid for with penalties if they don’t.

  20. @Marc – “Flying several hundred thousand miles a year mostly on AA and UA I have had more than 30% of my flights delayed/cancelled or somehow changed… but I’ve come to accept it is part of travel and the airline always wins.”
    Well, that’s the American mentality which has caused 30% of your flights to be disrupted without due compensation to you and others. Can’t blame you though as it’s gone too far now and to “accept it” is all American consumers can hope for now that corporations run the country.

  21. Canadian courts seem happy to award compensation to airlines for diversions that land there due to bad behaviour. As the passenger in this incident was from the UK it’s likely they had travel insurance that usually covers public liability so westjet could try that angle. Of course that just bumps up the premiums for the rest of us

    But airlines need to take responsibility as well. If the passenger was already under the influence they shouldn’t have been allowed to board or if he was refused more alcohol. If the crew gave him more then that reduces his liability. If an airline can remove a smelly or racist passenger then can do the same for someone under the influence.

    As to those that said the crew could have restrained him and just flown on to London. But would they be happy to have their flight disrupted by him shouting etc and keeping a CC member from serving them their dinner because they had to watch the miscreant.

    And many countries don’t have air marshalls because they see them as being a waste of time and money. I’ve seen more reports of FAMs leaving guns in the toilets or getting drunk themselves than I have of them preventing any sort of incident.

  22. Deterrents are effective. There should be a big criminal penalty, resembling a super DUI. Something on the order of some jail time and a hefty fine and a ban that extends across all airlines operating in US airspace for the period of a year or maybe longer. On various media, you always see these drunk clowns being escorted off the aircraft but you never hear anything further as to the penalties. The offender gets a pass and the rest of the passengers and crew endure the hardships.

    The alcohol problem isn’t easily solved. You could ban alcohol in the terminals and on the aircraft but that wouldn’t keep someone from showing up in a stupor having tanked up at a hotel or elsewhere. I certainly wouldn’t want to undergo a breathalyzer to board a flight.

  23. I certainly do not believe that a passenger owes any other passenger for their delay. Everyone knows that when you get on a flight there are 101 things that can delay you. If it is that important to be somewhere on time then travel the day before you need to.

    And the airline is at fault here as well. Anyone that drunk should have been denied boarding. One of the things cabin crew and gate staff are suppose to look and smell for is inebriation

  24. donna – here are a couple from the UK

    jailed for 14 months –

    another with a £1k fine –

    From VS crew who I know that in most cases they get handed over to the local law enforcement who decide whether to prosecute (or not) but but they also get banned from VS and often told to make their own way home if they disrupt the ex UK flight. But these cases rarely make the UK media unless there is a reported on board or the family / friends try and do ‘the airline abandoned me’ story to gain sympathy (which often does not come!_

  25. donna – a couple from the UK – one jailed for 14 months and another got a £1,000 fine (tried to post the links but no go)

    From VS crew who I know that in most cases they get handed over to the local law enforcement who decide whether to prosecute (or not) but but they also get banned from VS and often told to make their own way home if they disrupt the ex UK flight. But these cases rarely make the UK media unless there is a reported on board or the family / friends try and do ‘the airline abandoned me’ story to gain sympathy (which often does not come!)

  26. I wonder if airlines track their contingent costs resulting from drunken passengers – all the way from crew harassment and cleaning up to flight diversions ? Surely this is an “elephant in the room” issue. Let’s turn the discussion around. Just stop carrying alcohol on board. We already dealt with smoking, and surely that’s a harder addiction to break ? The same goes for airports air side – you really don’t want passengers getting “tanked up” before a flight. One thing is for sure – 50 years from now alcohol will be way less prominent in Western cultures, as it is today in many Asian cultures (excluding Japan). Just quit propping up damaging legacy addictions already.

  27. 100% they should compensate the airline and the passengers, and if they can’t they should go to jail for a long time. Too many people these days don’t take responsibility for their actions and blame it on drink or drugs, the fact is if you get drunk/violent/take drugs/etc that is your choice and should face the ramifications. It’s the same as if you drink and drive a car and kill someone you should go to jail as you choose to make that decision and should be punished for your ignorance and stupidity – the vast majority of the population make the sensible decision those that don’t should pay the price or shouldn’t be part of the general population.

  28. I think it all depends why the flight was diverted. If it was a non preventable medical issue than no the passenger should not have to compensate those affected. If it is a behavioral, mental health, alcohol related issue or a preventable medical issue such as someone flying when their doctor told them not to, than absolutely yes they should be held accountable.

  29. If you are drunk and disorderly or just plain disruptive, you should be on the hook for the entire cost and then be blacklisted from air travel on any airline for life. People have no manners these days and this is the only way they will learn. We’ve all run into these idiots during our travel and would be much better off without them.

  30. I’d say “yes” if it is a diversion or delay due to disruptive behavior on the part of the passenger (not medical issues, though). BUT I would also limit restitution to cases where criminal charges are filed. You wouldn’t want a passenger to face civil legal action and the associated fees if they get thrown off because another passenger or crew member falsely or mistakenly accuses them of making a threat, for example.

    @LongWayAround – quite frankly, if someone decides to be an a$$hat and cause a diversion that inconveniences and causes economic losses for hundreds of other innocent passengers, I don’t give a flip if they end up financially ruined. It’s time to make a few examples of these idiots. Maybe that’ll cause others to – gasp – actually think before doing something stupid.

  31. Dr Gao should have paid for disrupting the flight, delaying takeoff and annoying the crew.

    Geez, everybody is voting for blindly putting more power into corporate hands. How long until FAs get bonuses for “finding” supposedly drunk (or otherwise uncooperative) people and corporation pads its bottom line with customers’ cash beyond ticket price? Consumers are already at the mercy of airlines (when was the last time you had excellent service domestically?), now we should be enslaved to FAs determination of acceptable behaviour.

    There has to be heavy burden of proof placed on these instances, or any power-tripping service provider will abuse it.

  32. “There has to be heavy burden of proof placed on these instances, or any power-tripping service provider will abuse it.”

    I agree with the general idea (not so much the assertion of “power-tripping service provided” part, but I digress) that the burden should and must fall on the carrier…

    That’s why I think the best standard to use is first that the passenger has been found guilty of a criminal offense directly related to said diversion event AND either a jury award, statutory award or Judge-imposed award of damages…

    That way an independent body – call me the courts – make the call as to criminality and if so, what’s the appropriate/legal fine/restitution to be paid and to whom such should be paid.

    To an earlier commenters point/claim that it might be that carries turn these events into a profit-making exercise… I highly doubt that a carrier will ever be able to truly cover ALL their costs associated with a diversion- largely because while fuel is the first and most obvious element, there’s added cabin/flight deck crew time, added ground staff handling time (sometimes overtime staff is used or additional staff are needed) added ground handling costs (fleet staff and perhaps gate use costs), incrementally higher maintenance costs (some aircraft maintenance costs are based on cycles and an additional cycle is a small, but added cost) all the passenger reaccomodation costs (such as hotel/food vouchers if any) and lost revenue (when rebooking is done OAL and the ticket is pushed to another carrier)… so, my guess is that when it is ALL added together, I highly doubt any court-imposed restitution would ever truly recover all costs incurred — much less provide for a gross profit from the event. But I do agree that it should never be a true profit event – only “make whole” at best.

  33. Some of these comments are really unbelievable. There is absolutely no sense of personal responsibility and accountability today. Of course these people should compensate the airline. Alcohol is not the problem, jerks are. I could get completely drunk and I would still be very nice and would eventually just pass out.

  34. A passenger suing an airline for a delay or missed flight is no way the same as the converse because the power is totally asymmetric. Airlines are corporations and have tons of resources at their disposals. Individual passengers do not. Which is not to say that unruly passengers shouldn’t be held responsible for their behavior. But to blankly say “too bad” or “if they go bankrupt, so be it” is callous at best. Also you can’t always predict ahead of takeoff when someone is going to have an emergency.

  35. James – I just read a comment on another OMAAT blog article that you had left for TPG. I also saw on your insta that you’re starting TPG UK or something like that. I normally don’t read TPG but just wanted to let you know I have enjoyed reading your articles for OMAAT and wish you the best in your endeavours and career! Thank you.

  36. James –– I too went hunting for where you’d gone. Even if a rival poached you, I think it would have been nice for OMAAT to have had an update. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles and wish you well.

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