Passenger regulations

Government-imposed rules to govern passenger behavior, consumer financial transactions, access to transportation by persons with disabilities, and treatment of victims and relatives after accidents.

Underlying Reasons for Passenger Regulations

Passenger regulations have been promulgated over the years to address different problems and the changing needs of both planes and people. Thus, passenger regulations have many origins and are under the jurisdiction of several different government offices. Generally, however, these regulations serve three purposes.

First and foremost is the need for passenger regulations to help ensure the safe operation of aircraft and to aid the crew in the event of an emergency. These passenger regulations generally restrict rights and freedoms that citizens might otherwise have if they were not in an airplane or airport. Such regulations aid in the safe operation of the aircraft and airlines and are found in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), which are part of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Implementation of these regulations and enforcement are the jobs of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Regulations have the effect of law, and if passengers fail to comply and thereby endanger the safe operation of the aircraft or airport, they can be subject to legal enforcement action, including fines and imprisonment.

Examples of passenger regulations and restrictions of passenger behavior include compliance with orders of the crew regarding seat belt and tray table usage, baggage stowage, no smoking, emergency exit seating restrictions, and other emergency preparations. Passenger interference with air crew duties and engaging in behavior which endangers or harms the plane crew or other passengers, now commonly referred to as air rage, are also prohibited and punishable by fine or imprisonment. Regulations imposing age and physical capability restrictions on who can sit in an emergency exit row were added in response to disasters in which evacuation was hampered by persons unable or unwilling to open emergency exits. The requirements imposed by the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996 sought to remedy abuses and provide more information and assistance to families of crash victims. The act sets forth the obligations of airlines and others in the event of a plane crash, and gives passengers and victims’ families rights to information and property after an accident.

The second major body of passenger regulations concerns economic issues. Somewhat like a codification of fair business practices, these passenger regulations are also in the Code of Federal Regulations but are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation Consumer Protection Division. These passenger regulations give passengers some rights to prompt refunds, access to lower fares if available, compensation and substitute transportation arrangements or prompt refund if involuntarily bumped because of overbooking, and the right to have the class and type of service purchased, such as first or business class, and jet aircraft if the ticket was purchased on a jet service flight.

The third major area of passenger regulations guarantees access to and reasonable accommodation in air transportation to persons with disabilities. These regulations forbid airlines to have a policy of denying handicapped persons access to planes and require the airlines to make reasonable accommodations for aids such as wheelchairs, guide dogs and assistance animals, and certain medical equipment. Codified in federal law, the Department of Transportation Consumer Protection Division has oversight, but other federal laws also protect discrimination against persons with disabilities and give other legal remedies to persons with disabilities wrongly denied access to air, as well as any other, public transportation service.

Areas Not Covered by Passenger Regulations

Perhaps the biggest problems that frustrate and confuse passengers and airlines, and cause a great amount of air rage, are issues which are not covered by passenger regulations. In purchases of comparably priced or even less expensive consumer goods or services, consumer protection laws provide customers with warranties and product and service protection guarantees. However, even though airline tickets are more expensive than most other consumer goods and services, the U.S. Congress and the airlines have resisted comparable consumer protection regulations for airline passengers. Airline passengers may be left without remedies for poor service and other complaints, such as failure of airlines to provide passengers timely and truthful information about their flights. The issues typically involve canceled or delayed flights and the provision of hotel rooms, food, and other amenities when a flight is delayed or canceled. Other airline rules address rebooking on the same or another carrier after a flight cancellation or delay, the numbers and size of carry-on and checked luggage, and recovery and temporary assistance in the event of lost or delayed bags. Even though these issues are covered in each airline’s rules, these rules are not government regulations and do not have the same force and effect. Furthermore, airline rules are not typically enforced by the federal government, although the Department of Transportation Aviation Consumer Protection Division does accept complaints and publishes a report about the number and nature of complaints against airlines.

The airlines’ rules are, however, legally part of the airline’s contract of carriage, or the tariff, which governs the terms of a ticket purchase. Failure of a carrier to abide by its own rules is a tariff violation, but passengers rarely bring such a legal action because the costs of doing so usually far outweigh the possible award for a violation of the contract of carriage. Airlines must make their contract of carriage available to any passenger who requests it. An airline’s rules are to be available at the airline’s airport facility and by mail upon request, and they can be accessed on the World Wide Web.


  • Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Consumer Protection Division. ( Summarizes regulations, rules and guidelines, accepts complaints and reports of problems, provides an air travel consumer report, and offers advice to passengers. Publications available on line include Fly Rights, New Horizons: Information for the Air Traveler with a Disability, Industry Letters—Guidance Regarding Aviation Rules and Statutes, and a list of other government publications.
  • Schiavo, Mary. Flying Blind, Flying Safe. New York: Avon, 1998. An overview of the U.S. aviation industry and the national aerospace system; several chapters are devoted to passenger regulations and aviation consumer issues.
  • U.S. Code of Federal Regulations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, published annually. Also available on the World Wide Web ( and at other Web sites. See especially 14 C.F.R. and the sections thereunder.

Air rage

Airline industry, U.S.

Federal Aviation Administration

Safety issues