What Are Your Rights When It Comes to Involuntary Bumps?

Apr 10, 2017

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See How I Got the United Situation Wrong Yesterday for TPG’s analysis of the situation.

Earlier today we reported on an incident in which a man was rendered seemingly unconscious as he was physically removed from a United flight by police after the airline realized it needed to bump passengers.

The video of the incident is shocking and United clearly has a number of questions to answer, but it begs the question: what exactly is an airline allowed to do if it has oversold a flight?

The short answer is — almost anything. When you purchase an airline ticket, you’re agreeing to that airline’s Contract of Carriage, which is written by airline attorneys to give the company as much latitude as possible. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) provides certain legal rules the airlines must follow when it comes to bumping passengers, but beyond that, you’re at the mercy of the airline.

The CFR requires airlines to first ask for volunteers before denying boarding involuntarily and in this case United reportedly did offer $400 and then eventually $800 in compensation to try and get volunteers, but didn’t get enough takers. Some people think United should have offered more money, though Rule 25, section A(4)a of United’s Contract of Carriage states the airline will offer a maximum amount of $675 to $1,350, depending on the original fare and the length of the delay if it involuntarily bumps people.

So if the airline can’t get enough volunteers, what happens? The Code of Federal Regulations says:

If an insufficient number of volunteers come forward, the carrier may deny boarding to other passengers in accordance with its boarding priority rules.

But in this case, the passenger was already onboard and the airline wanted to take him back off, presumably in order to put another passenger in his seat. Does United have the right to do that? Yes, because Rule 25(A)2(b) of United’s Contract of Carriage gives its boarding priority rules:

The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.

In this case, United said the passengers were being removed so that the airline could add crew members that needed to position to Louisville for flights in the morning. But in other instances it could be a passenger who had a more critical itinerary (perhaps a connection that would be missed) or even a higher elite status.

What is United’s record on involuntarily bumping passengers? That criteria was part of TPG’s recent study of The Best and Worst Airlines in the United States — in 2016 United involuntarily bumped 3,765 people out of a total of more than 86 million passengers on the airline. That’s a ratio of 0.4 involuntary bumps per 1,000 passengers, which is roughly middle of the pack when it comes to US airlines — the top performer, Hawaiian, bumped only 49 people out of more than 10 million passengers.

We spoke to Alexander Bachuwa, a New York attorney who has written for TPG in the past on legal issues regarding travel. “The bottom line is that airlines hold the power to deny someone boarding and to remove someone from the flight,” Bachuwa told us. “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.”

TPG shared his thoughts in a Facebook Live broadcast earlier this morning — and they’re summarized below as well.

United certainly has at least some blame for this — they should have nipped this situation in the bud before it got out of hand. Are the police guilty of unnecessary force? Obviously it seemed like a bit much, but I wasn’t there and I don’t want to judge it without knowing all the facts. But I stand by my statements on Twitter that when a police officer or airline crew tells you to get off the plane, even if they’re in the wrong, you have to go.

The fact is passengers don’t have any “rights” when it comes to being on a specific flight. I think there should be legislation that makes overselling a flight much more costly for the airline, like in the European Union where compensation for delays, cancellations and denied boardings is much more regulated than in the US. But it’s still the airline’s plane and the captain is the boss, so if you’re told to get off the plane, get off the plane.

Featured image courtesy of Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

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