Denied boarding after a temperature check? Here are your rights

May 21, 2020

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As a handful of airlines and airports start to institute preflight health checks for passengers, you should know that you have some rights if you’re denied boarding after such a screening.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines are permitted to bar passengers from traveling who have obvious signs of a communicable disease. But if that happens to you, a DOT spokeswoman said, the airline is required to book you on another flight within 90 days at no extra charge or provide you with a full refund for any unused portion of your ticket if you choose not to travel.

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However, as with most travel policies in the age of coronavirus, there are many gray areas in the rules for disease-related denied boardings.

Because the U.S. has no comprehensive national policy for travel and public health during the pandemic, airlines, local airport authorities and other parts of the travel industry are left to design and implement such measures on their own.

The result is a kaleidoscope of rules and requirements that seem to change every day, leaving travelers confused and opening the door to legal challenges.

If you’re flying Frontier next month, for example, you’ll undergo a temperature check before you board. If you have a fever of 100.4 or higher, the airline will keep you grounded. According to Frontier, passengers who are denied boarding under that policy will be rebooked within 14 days at no extra charge. They can also choose to receive a credit for future travel or a refund, though the airline said the policy’s exact terms are still being finalized.

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 10: An employee of Samsung has his temperature checked before boarding a plane at Incheon International Airport on May 10, 2020 in Incheon, South Korea. More than 210 employees from South Korea's Samsung departed for China's Tianjin to resume work on Monday. (Photo by Zeng Nai/China News Service via Getty Images)
Temperature screenings for travelers, already common in Asia and elsewhere, may become common at U.S. airports soon. (Photo by Zeng Nai/China News Service via Getty Images)

Other U.S. airlines have yet to introduce such screenings, but many are requiring passengers to wear masks while traveling, though enforcement varies widely by airline. Some carriers are also capping ticket sales and blocking middle seats.

Delta’s CEO said last month that passengers may be required to carry an “immunity passport” in the future, but with the reliability of tests in doubt and scarce data available about COVID-19 immunity, that future seems a long way off.

Not sure about what to expect if you’re traveling soon? You’re not alone.

“If we have 10 different scheduled airlines offering 10 different policies, it’s going to confuse the hell out of passengers.” said William J. McGee, author of the book “Attention All Passengers,” which examines how airlines have prioritized profit over the passenger experience.

Plus, he said, if an airline decides to implement health screenings by itself, there’s no guarantee that local, independent airport operators will cooperate with those measures. Even if an airline does technically have the authority to deny you boarding because you’re sick, he said, carriers can put themselves in a precarious position if they are suddenly acting as on-the-spot medical clinics.

“That’s absurd. They’re not in the business of health screenings,” McGee said. “I would imagine there are going to be a ton of lawsuits against airlines if this is implemented.”

Mary Schiavo, an attorney who specializes in transportation-related cases and a former DOT inspector general, said that in the absence of federal regulation, the screenings are on somewhat shaky legal ground.

Related: How radically could air travel change? These questions from Delta offer some insights.

“A passenger, theoretically, can refuse,” she said, because there’s no law that requires them to submit to an airline-implemented health screening. So, carriers that do choose to conduct such screenings on their own are opening the door to potentially costly legal challenges, even as they’re already bleeding cash in the current travel depression.

McGee said there are also open questions about the accuracy of airport health checks and about the security of the personal health data that gets collected.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MAY 15: Empty boarding areas are seen at Louis Armstrong International Airport on May 15, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Air travel is down an estimated 94 percent due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and major U.S. airlines are taking a major financial hit with losses of $350 million to $400 million a day and nearly half of major carriers airplanes are sitting idle. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Airlines and airports are largely encouraging social distancing and other public health measures, but as demand for travel rebounds, they can be difficult to enforce. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“How accurate are the readings? Who’s doing the oversight of the accuracy of the readings?” he said. “For every answer, there’s 20 more questions, and I just think it’s absurd that we’re putting this on the corporations without any sort of guidance from the DOT, from the government.”

The industry seems to largely agree. Groups like Airlines for America (A4A), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Airports Council International (ACI) and others are increasingly calling on governments to institute broad, uniform policies that would outline predictable public health measures across aviation and the rest of the travel landscape.

Related: You might be able to get a refund for that flight you canceled after all.

In a joint paper released Wednesday, IATA and ACI called on governments to take the lead in establishing public health measures for travelers as the pandemic recovery gets underway.

The organizations said the smoothest way forward for the industry is one in which governments “assume their pre-existing responsibility for managing the risk of communicable diseases at airports.”

As a consumer advocate, McGee said that having airlines implement their own policies without government directives is precarious for carriers and confusing for travelers.

“I’m often at odds with airlines, but I have a feeling there are a lot of airline executives who agree with me that this is outside of their comfort zone,” he said.

Schiavo agreed too.

“I think the feds have terribly dropped the ball,” she said. “They’re doing a huge disservice to the airlines by not doing anything.”

In the current “piecemeal mishmash of mismanagement,” she said, “a passenger is left with confusion and fear.”

Featured photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.

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