Another week, another viral United Airlines headline. Somehow, the notion that “any publicity is good publicity” is probably not one the airline is subscribing to right now.

A couple of weeks ago, I sided with the U.S. carrier during the “leggings-gate” scandal, when a couple of teenage girls were denied boarding because they didn’t comply with United Airlines’ strict dress-code policy for staff and family.

After initial social media outrage, as people became aware of the stringent rules that accompany the highly coveted (a.k.a. free and heavily discounted family and friends’) tickets, the furor largely died away.

This week’s headline-grabbing video—of a passenger-grabbing airport security officer dragging a United Airlines’ passenger off a plane—is a different matter altogether.

While there are still a few pertinent details missing, what is not missing is the irrefutable reality that physically manhandling and dragging a passenger from onboard an aircraft in front of every other passenger, for no reason other than the airline needed the seat for someone else, is indefensible.

What we do know of the situation, so far, is that at 5:40 p.m. on Sunday April 9, United Express flight 3411 was sat at the gate at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport preparing for its flight to Louisville, Kentucky. The aircraft was full, and at some point an announcement was made that United needed to free up four seats.

As is customary in such situations, the airline initially offered $400 to anyone prepared to take the next available flight. As 3411 was the last flight to Louisville that day and the next available flight wasn’t until the following morning, there were apparently no takers—so United upped their offer to $800 per person.

When volunteers again failed to step forward, United identified four passengers to be off-loaded. Three went quietly, while the fourth refused. With the holdout having ignored their request and then their order, the cabin staff called airport security to have the man removed. And amid wailing and screaming, he was forcibly wrenched from his seat, then dragged down the aisle by his arms, with eyeglasses askew on bloodied face.

All the while being filmed by sundry smartphones.

United isn’t Alone: Overbooked Airplanes, Explained

Almost every airline—except for charter carriers—overbooks their flights, if you didn’t know. It’s customary, and it’s perfectly legal.

Airlines know from experience that a certain number of passengers will almost certainly not turn up for a flight. Business travellers are notorious for changing plans at the last minute, and most first-class, business-class and full-price economy tickets allow changes and last-minute cancellations, either free of charge or for a nominal fee.

Add to this the passengers who are taken ill, caught in traffic or miss a connecting flight, and there are almost inevitably several no-shows.

In 2016, according to the Associated Press, United Airlines forced 3,765 people from overbooked flights out of a total of 86 million passengers. In addition, another 62,895 people voluntarily gave up their seats. Although that seems like a lot, it only earned United a mid-table spot on the airline table of bumpings.

“What we also don’t know is how the four passengers were chosen for removal. Some media reports have suggested it was done entirely by random, although I very much doubt this was the case”

Many of an airlines’ greatest costs are fixed, regardless of how many people are on board an aircraft. Airport fees, flight and cabin crew salaries, and aviation fuel vary little whether the aircraft is full or half full, so all empty seats cost the airline money.

Airlines rarely reveal by exactly how many seats they might overbook a flight; however, I once remember seeing a Europe-bound flight from Toronto being over-sold by 80 seats. I have no idea what that looked like at the airport that evening, but I suspect it wasn’t much fun.

When a flight is badly oversold like that, the airline has a number of options. They can immediately cancel the reservations of non-revenue tickets, such as airline and other travel-industry personnel. If that hasn’t remedied the situation, the airline may reroute passengers, or start looking for volunteers, just as United did last Sunday. The difference is that this is generally done at check-in or in the departure lounge long before the flight—not when everyone is comfortably settled on board the aircraft.

Just what compensation an airline must offer to a passenger is up to the airline, unless a country has an air passenger’s bill of rights, such as Regulation (EC) No 261/2004 in Europe. (Canadians currently have no such bill, though one is due to be introduced this spring.)

While it may seem that over-selling flights only benefits airlines, there actually is somewhat of a benefit for passengers. Allowing an airline to play the numbers game to try and ensure their flights are full actually helps keep the cost of flying down.

If an airline had to factor in the possibility that a flight might be only 85 percent full due to last-minute refundable cancellations on its most popular and lucrative routes, instead of relying on it to always be 98 percent full, they would likely have to charge more for an average ticket.

A Closer Look at the Specific United Situation

In this particular case, some reports have stated that UA3411 was not actually oversold but just full, and United was seeking to off-load four passengers because four United Airlines’ staff members required seats.

Presumably these four were flight or cabin crew required to operate a flight out of Louisville the next morning and thus had to be on that flight. If they failed to make it to Louisville that evening, the flight they were scheduled to work would have been delayed for hours until another crew got there, potentially inconveniencing hundreds of other passengers and triggering a further trickle-down problem.

“Dead-heading”—as it’s sometimes called when airline crews travel as passengers in one direction in order to connect with a flight they must work on in another direction—is also a common practice, and these crews do need priority. While these situations are usually scheduled well in advance, sometimes a crew will get stranded somewhere by weather, labour disputes, delays or illness, and a backup crew must quickly be dispatched.

This may well be what happened here—but we don’t know all the details yet, and instead the notion that four United passengers were removed from an aircraft at the last minute to make way for four United staff members makes the whole thing even more unsavoury.

What we also don’t know is how the four passengers were chosen for removal. Some media reports have suggested it was done entirely by random, although I very much doubt this was the case.

I would be surprised if a loyal United Airlines’ customer with millions of miles would be removed, or someone who had paid full price for their ticket. Perhaps the four were travelling on free tickets obtained through a loyalty program, or they had been the last to purchase their tickets, the last to check in, or the last to board—again though, we don’t yet know.

Whatever the reason for their selection, we still end up with an utterly unpalatable experience that can only do long-term damage to United’s reputation, and possibly even their business.

United Airlines’ chief executive issued an apology on the afternoon of April 11, clarifying in a statement that the company would take full responsibility. “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” he said in the statement, promising a thorough review of the practice within a month.

But regardless of how awful the video is, or how poorly the situation was handled (or how large the ejected passenger’s eventual lawsuit against the airline may be!), United Airlines was entirely within their rights to deny boarding to a passenger for overbooking—and, presumably, to have passengers removed from a flight if need be.

In purchasing or obtaining any airline ticket, all passengers agree to abide by the airline’s Contract of Carriage, which in United Airlines’ case allows the company to involuntarily deny boarding (which I would suspect also legally extends to removing someone from a flight prior to departure) in the event of an oversold flight.

Given the violent nature of the passenger’s removal in this case, however, every passenger also has the right to deny United Airlines their future business.

One Response

  1. Neil

    If ‘denied boarding’ is the wording in the contract, I’d be very surprised if that could be extended to ‘removed from flight’ by a court. These are clearly different things, and in a situation what the passenger had minimal power to negotiate terms, it seems highly unlikely the court would extend the airline’s wording beyond what is written.

    This does seem like something that should be covered in a bill of rights. Forced removals could be banned, with airline’s required to keep bidding up the delay price until they find takers.


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