Guide to Rights for Airline Passengers in the U.S.

Group of Business People at AirportAs an airline passenger or someone who has booked a flight, you have several consumer rights you may not be aware of. Here are some important ones.

1. Consumer rights for airline passengers

Are airlines allowed to bump me from a flight?

Yes but if they do they must provide you cash compensation (unless the airline is not at fault, e.g. weather)1Federal Register Number: 2011-09736

How long can an airline hold me on the tarmac?

Airlines may not hold you on the tarmac for more than 4 hours.

What are my rights in canceling a flight?

You have the right to cancel a booked flight and get a full refund without penalty, for a minimum of 24 hours. 

Notes: This applies only if you book more than 7 days before the flight. Instead of the cancellation option, airlines instead may allow you to hold a quoted fare without any payment necessary for at least 24 hours (but most choose the cancellation option). This does NOT apply to rewards flights or flights that weren’t booked directly with the airline (for example, with Expedia or Travelocity, etc.)

2. Security screenings

Is the TSA (airport security) subject to any rules when screening passengers?

Yes. The Transportation Safety Administration may not unjustifiably infringe any of your Constitutional rights including freedom of speech, religion, and association (see our Guide to Free Speech for more on this)2all found in the 1st amendment as well as rights regarding search of your body or belongings, and arrest or taking your stuff (see our Guide to Laws on Police Conduct for more on this).3as found in the 4th amendment

But remember that Constitutional rights are not absolute, and particularly in the airport screening setting, there are more limitations on these rights. For example, the fact that you are going on an airplane means you give up some of your rights to privacy, since security of all passengers requires you and your belongings to be searched (but the search must not be unreasonable).

What are my rights regarding patdowns at the airport?

If you can’t or don’t want to be screened by a body scanner or a walk-through metal detector, or if the scanner or metal detector picks up anything odd, you will be screened using a thorough pat down.

Rules for patdowns:

  • conducted by an officer of the same gender as you
  • You can request a private screening at any time. During a private screening, another officer will also be present and you may be accompanied by a friend or family member
  • You may ask for a chair if you need to sit down.
  • You should not be asked to remove or lift any article of clothing to reveal a sensitive body area.

See more at the TSA website.

What can and can’t I bring on an airplane?

Liquids. From the TSA: “You are allowed to bring one small bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes through the checkpoint.” Each container must be no more than 3.4 ounces. You may also bring medications, baby food/formula, or breast milk in larger amounts, but must declare these at the checkpoint.

Other items. See the full list here.


If an airline has violated any of the consumer rules listed above, you can do any of the following:

See more information at the Dept of Transportation website.

If the TSA (airport security) has violated your rights:

See more information on the TSA website.

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