Millions of people around the world have seen the brutal video and photos of a man dragged off a flight, kicking, screaming and knocked unconscious, because United Airlines wanted his seat for an employee. Do you have rights when airlines overbook flights and bump you? It depends.
United’s shameful treatment of a paying customer set off a social media storm, including Twitter hashtag #NewUnitedAirlineMottos with tweets like “We’ll Drag You All Over the World”.
It took two full days for United CEO Oscar Munoz to apologize, also shameful. The passenger, a doctor, remains hospitalized, with bruises and broken teeth.
It is a public relations nightmare making headlines around the world, including in China, where the dragged-off passenger’s Chinese heritage makes the incident look like discrimination.
Overbooking is standard procedure
Overbooking is a regular practice to off-set no-shows. We’ve all been at the gate when the attendant announces the flight is overbooked, and the airline is offering $200 or more, a free ticket, or even both, to take a later flight.
Usually, it’s because the airline wants to give that seat to a frequent flyer who paid more than you did for a seat.
Years ago, I gave up my seat willingly to a young mother and infant, trying to connect with her husband, on military leave from service in the Mideast, to see his newborn son. I could wait. She couldn’t. My compensation was a grateful hug from the mom, an upgrade to First Class on the next flight, and a voucher for a free future flight.
This headline-making incident was to bump four passengers to give their seats to four United employees who needed to catch up with their own flights.
In 2016, United involuntarily denied boarding to 3,765 of its more than 86 million passengers on oversold flights, according to the Transportation Department. An additional 62,895 people voluntarily gave up their seats. But bumping them after seating them is extemely rare.
Three passengers on this Chicago to Louisville flight accepted $800 each and guaranteed seating on the next flight, and left their seats. This man refused.
Did he have the right to refuse? It depends.
Contracts of Carriage
Every airline has something called “contracts of carriage”, which covers things like the size and weight of your suitcase, the right to reroute the flight for weather or another emergency, and denied boarding compensation.
Here’s where it gets tricky, and where United is probably facing a multi-million dollar lawsuit, in addition to the worldwide shame that may do permanent damage to its reputation and brand image.
The rules cover denied boarding. United, and other airlines, have the right to deny you to get on board for reasons that include being drunk or disorderly, or checking in too late.
But these passengers had boarded, were sitting in their seats, carry-ons stowed in the overheads and seatbelts fastened, when four people were chosen randomly to get off the plane. This man refused, claiming he was a doctor who had patients waiting.
Did he have the right to refuse? United’s contract of carriage also includes this disclaimer, under Additional Terms :
(2) change or modify any of its conditions of contract with or without notice to ticketed passengers.
I’m not a lawyer, but that translates to me as “we can do whatever we want after we have taken your money”.
So do you have any rights as an airline passenger? It depends.
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photo montage courtesy NBC News