Wednesday, 15 February 2006

No refund on Northwest Airlines if you won't produce ID

I mentioned in a recent article that airlines’ rules explicitly require them to give you a full and unconditional refund — even if your ticket was otherwise compeletely nonrefundable — if they refuse to transport you because (among other reasons) you refuse to permit your person or belongings to be searched for weapons or explosives, or you refuse to provide evidence of your identity that the airline deems sufficient.

That’s still true for almost every airline whose rules I re-checked, but it has begun to change. The most reason version of Northwest Airlines’ Contract of Carriage effective 10 February 2006 . See Rule 35 (G) on page 37 of this PDF :


I don’t know when the change was first made. If anyone has any archived copies of Northwest’s terms and conditions, please let me know the date of your copy and whether it includes this rule.

As of today, there is no such clause in the contracts of carriage or general tariff rules of American Airlines , Delta Air Lines , United Airlines , Continental Airlines , or US Airways . But check before you buy a ticket — I won’t be surprised if they follow Northwest’s lead.

Typically with each of these airlines there’s a section in the rules (“Rule 35”, for those airlines that still use the same numbering as was used in the rules applied by the government to all airlines in the USA before deregulation in 1978) on “Acceptance of Passengers” or “Refusal to Transport” that says the airline may refuse to transport you if you refuse to “permit” a search of your person and luggage for weapons or explosives, or refuse on request to ” produce positive identification”. There’s a separate section (“Rule 260” for those airlines that still use the pre-1978 numbering) on “Involuntary Refunds” providing that if you are refused transportation, and your ticket is unused, the refund will be ” the full amount paid (with no service charge or refund penalty)”.

Note that this doesn’t require you to “consent” to search, only that you “permit” it. It doesn’t require you to permit a search for evidence of identity, or a search for any purpose other than weapons or explosives. And it doesn’t say who is entitled to demand that you produce identification, whether that production can be oral or must be through tangible evidence (a distinction the U.S. Supreme Court found to be decisive in its decison last year in the Hiibel case), or what consitutes “positive” identification, as determined by whom or according to what process of verification.

As long as an airline has to give a full refund to anyone they refuse to transport, the airline has an incentive to accept whatever identification would-be pasengers provide, and not to subject them to such intrusive search as to induce them to ask for their money back instead of going through with it. In practice, on purely domestic flights within the USA, most airlines actually accept even the flimsiest evidence of identity, if the airline thinks the would-be passenger is sincere and not trying to evade or refuse to comply with the requirement for “positive” identification.

Under Northwest’s new rule, anyone whose identification is deemed not to be “positive”, or not to have been “produced” in an acceptable form, will forfeit the fare they have already paid, without the airline having to provide any services.

Is that a permissable condition of carriage? We won’t know until it is challenged — as I hope it will be.

Under the terms of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, airlines are licensed in the USA as “common carriers”. And under the terms of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble”. Often, we assemble (“move into a group”) by common carrier. Most airline trips are acts of assembling with friends, relatives, participants in business meetings, etc.

It was only a matter of time until airlines began to add clauses like Northwest’s to their conditions of carriage, and courts were forced to confront — as they haven’t yet done — the question of whether such terms of service are consistent with the obligations of the airlines as “common carriers”, and the obligations under the assembly clause of the of the First Amendment of the government agencies that license the airlines. Those questions are now ripe for decision, and will be difficult for the Federal courts to evade once they are presented with a suitable test case challenging Northwest’s new rules.

For what it’s worth, you can still get a full refund on Northwest, as on other airlines, even if your ticket was otherwise nonrefundable, if you refuse to accept a change in the scheduled flight time — no matter how slight — after you have bought your ticket. This applies only if the schedule is changed. If the schedule remains the same, but the flight actually departs or arrives late (or early), your nonrefundable ticket remains nonrefundable. But if you present yourself to check in, and are told, “By the way, your flight is now scheuled to depart 3 minutes later than the time on your ticket”, you are entileld to say, “That’s not acceptable to me. I demand all the money I paid for this ticket back, without penalty.”

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 15 February 2006, 08:04 ( 8:04 AM)

what if you denied to board on airplane because you are 50 minutes before departure and you loose 7 tickets and to be asked to leave and foregot it as nothing and cursed also in A mexican languish and threatened. This all on NWA. Currently I am complaining aganist NWA to consumer afair then I'll take it to hire and I want the whole world know about NWA bad service and rules

Posted by: VICTIM OF NWA, 16 August 2007, 12:52 (12:52 PM)

I would like everyone to know that the Northwest Airline ( NWA ) site errored and booked the wrong date on my flight. When I complained the employees kept me on hold for 2.5 hours and then did nothing to remedy the problem. If I were a potential passenger on Northwest Airline I would worry for my safety. These folks cannot keep there website running much less a complex aircraft.

Posted by: PDT, 13 September 2007, 15:37 ( 3:37 PM)

Internet Archive's Wayback Machine has cached multiple previous versions of the NWA site, including the contract PDFs:*/http:///

Posted by: Phil Mocek, 28 January 2010, 10:28 (10:28 AM)

does anyone know if continental followed NWorst in their rule changing?

Posted by: Anonymous, 3 May 2010, 08:51 ( 8:51 AM)
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