A middle school field trip from Minnesota to Washington, D.C. took a maddening turn last week when American Airlines bumped the primary chaperone from the oversold flight home, raising questions about how the airline handles minors traveling with guardians.
Mark Westpfahl, a middle school social studies teacher from St. Paul, took 16 of his students to the nation's capital for a few days of history and sightseeing in early April. But when the group returned to Washington, D.C.-Reagan (DCA) airport on April 5 for the flight back to Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), Westpfahl was eventually told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and that he had been randomly selected to get bumped from the flight.
I'm not so much worried about getting to my destination. Sure, it would be really nice to see my own family again… and I understand how airlines overbook, and what procedures are, but I just really wish they would have reconsidered, knowing that I'm traveling w/16 students. https://t.co/22Mva3umYn
— Mark J. Westpfahl (@MarkJWestpfahl) April 6, 2019
After protesting and a half-hearted effort by American gate agents to recruit a volunteer, Westpfahl scrambled to ensure his students made it home OK. There was a secondary chaperone on the trip, but that left them with just one guardian for all 16 kids.
“I’m the legal guardian. I’ve got medicines. I’ve got all these procedures I have to follow by law. Is there any way you can randomly select anyone else?” he said he pleaded. “You want to make a scene, but it’s not going to do anything to help your students.”
His students made it home that night, and Westpfahl arrived back in Minnesota the following day. American gave him a $525 voucher.
Now, Westpfahl has questions about how American handled the situation, and why he was bumped from the flight when the airline knew he was acting as the students' guardian.
American Airlines insists that Westpfahl volunteered to get bumped from the flight.
“According to our records, and after we consulted with our team in Washington D.C. as well, he volunteered,” a spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Westpfahl scoffed at the suggestion, and he has proof that's not true. The airline itself admitted in an April 9 response to his formal complaint about the incident that he was “ultimately denied boarding since the flight was oversold and the gate agents had not received any volunteers.”
Update on my @AmericanAir situation. I feel like they are apologizing… but at the same time, don't really apologize. I'm not as concerned about rerouting me w/a layover, or that it delayed me. I'm more concerned that you pulled a chaperone of 16 middle schoolers. pic.twitter.com/oNbB3UyikJ
— Mark J. Westpfahl (@MarkJWestpfahl) April 9, 2019
What's more, American Airlines may not have met its legal duty to fairly compensate Westpfahl for removing him from the flight.
When an airline forcibly bumps passengers from a flight, it's required by the Department of Transportation to offer a certain amount of compensation. For the length of Westpfahl's delay, it's 400% of his one-way fare. And since Westpfahl paid $472 for his round-trip ticket, his compensation should have been $944 – not $525.
By treating Westpfahl as a volunteer, American Airlines could pay him less for getting bumped. Airlines aren't required to pay a set amount to volunteers – just whatever compensation they accept.
But American appears to be relenting on the money front.
Though the airline maintains that the teacher and chaperone of 16 students volunteered to take a different flight, a representative said that “since he states it was involuntary, we will be going back to him to offer that compensation.” The airline also said its customer relations team has reached out to Westpfahl.
Behind the Bump
Oversold flights are an unfortunate reality of travel. And airlines have taken pains to avoid drama when bumping passengers since 2017, after a bumped passenger who wouldn't leave his seat on a United flight in 2017 was bloodied and forcibly pulled from the plane.
Most airlines increased how much they'll offer passengers on oversold flights in an effort to get more volunteers.
Westpfahl said he understands that the pain of overbooked flights can be unavoidable. He just thinks the airline should have a policy to ensure it doesn't happen in situations like his. Or that it should have done more to prevent it on April 5.
When he begged the airline to find an alternative, gate agents put out a call for volunteers to get bumped – but didn't mention that it would have spared a chaperone and legal guardian from being separated from 16 students, who ranged from 11 to 14 years old.
Every airline has a “contract of carriage” that lays out the rules for flying, including regulations surrounding bumping passengers. American Airlines' contract does not specifically address school trips with minors, though it says it gives priority to unaccompanied minors.
American said of the situation: “We do not deny boarding to unaccompanied minors, and we advise our team to not choose customers who will experience a severe hardship as a result of being denied boarding i.e. elderly, disabled.”
Westpfahl said their tickets for the Washington, D.C. field trip were all basic economy – the no-frills fares that come with no checked bags and no seat assignment until you get to the gate. In its letter to Westpfahl, the airline wrote that passengers who do not have assigned seats are among the first to be chosen for an involuntary bump.
But Westpfahl also said that the airline knew he was acting as the legal guardian for a large group of students – they called into the reservation line to submit all the necessary forms and information.
The frustrated teacher said he's spoken with American Airlines officials recently and while they've been apologetic, they've also been noncommittal about whether they made a mistake or simply don't have a policy to prevent a repeat of last week's drama.
“How are we going to make sure that (students) are put in the safest position?” he asked. “That’s the piece that I’m just not seeing right now.”
Lead photo courtesy of Chris Lundberg via Flickr