Yes, Airlines Can Kick You Off Whenever They Want
Posted on 04/12/2017
The viral video showing a man involuntarily bumped from his seat and then forcibly dragged up the aisle and off the United Airlines flight has spawned many aftershocks.
The one with the most rumble?
Many people have been surprised to learn that buying a ticket does not guarantee you a seat. Yes, Virginia, this could happen to you, too.
According to the Contract Of Carriage, an airline can bump you involuntarily at any time.
And what is this Contract of Carriage legal minutiae? Put it this way: Your purchase of the ticket is your tacit confirmation to all airline rules and regulations, one of which is the airline’s ability to re-book passengers at will.
In the Sunday night incident aboard Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, United initially asked for one volunteer to be re-booked. It then boarded the full flight and suddenly asked for four volunteers to accommodate four United crew members who needed to be in Louisville to be repositioned for flights in the morning.
Being re-booked is a common and well-known practice—some fliers with flexibility actually enjoy being bumped to gain the compensation of what usually amounts to the average cost of a free flight.
As well-known as it might be, however, it’s a rarity in a general sense and extremely rare to be involuntarily bumped.
According to Department of Transportation statistics, the major US airlines bumped 475,054 passengers last year—434,425 voluntarily and 40,629 involuntarily. Some 670 million people flew last year, and the numbers work out to less than 1 in every 10,000 passengers who get bumped from an overbooked flight. (United only bumped .43 passengers out of every 10,000 seats in 2016.)
Federal regulations require the airline to first ask for volunteers to be bumped. In this case, nobody volunteered even with incentive compensation that started at $400, went to $800 and then to $1,000, (according to United CEO Oscar Munoz), including overnight hotel stay. It was the last flight of the day between Chicago and Louisville, so none of the passengers wanted to wait until the first available flight the next day at 3 p.m.
United then had a computer randomly generate four seats in which passengers would be forced to deplane.
So, yes, United and all airlines absolutely have the right to remove you. The only US federal requirement is to ask for volunteers first—which the airline did—and to provide compensation for both voluntary and involuntary passengers who are bumped and re-booked.
Certainly, no one imagined what transpired and not in the manner it did.
Alexander Bachuwa, a New York attorney with an expertise in travel, told The Points Guy blog: “The bottom line is that airlines hold the power to deny someone boarding and to remove someone from the flight. The legal issue may be whether the police used unnecessary force in dealing with the situation. I highly doubt they will be held liable. The passenger was asked to leave and did not, as bad as that sounds.”
Airlines routinely overbook flights based on data and algorithms that show a certain percentage of travelers routinely miss their flights for a variety of reasons.
"United was in a classic no-win situation: having security remove the passenger or allowing him to disobey their legally permissible request. Both have bad outcomes," DePaul University School for Public Service professor Joseph Schwieterman said in an email to the Chicago Tribune.
Thus, there is no legal protection from what occurred Sunday, though perhaps the court of public opinion and the specter of bad PR will create a slightly stronger shield.