Flying the Unfriendly Skies? Know Your Legal Rights!

April 12, 2017

As the dust begins to settle around the public relations nightmare for United Airlines arising out of its decision to remove a bumped passenger who was physically dragged from an overbooked flight on Sunday, many flyers are asking: What are my legal rights?

On Sunday and only after permitting the flight to board, United determined that four passengers needed to give up their seats before departure so that four crew members could travel to Louisville so they could work on another flight. United offered volunteers vouchers worth $850, but there were no takers.  When there were no volunteers, United selected four passengers at random to be removed from the flight.

The passenger who was forcibly removed, refused to leave because he said he was a physician and could not take another flight because he needed to see patients the next day. The United gate crew summoned security personnel who then physically dragged the doctor off the flight bloodying his face and, according to some passengers, knocking him unconscious in the process.

Under federal regulations Airlines are permitted to oversell flights – a practice Airlines say is essential to avoid flying planes with empty seats but which is understandably very unpopular with the flying public.  Those same federal regulations state that airlines are not required to pay any compensation to passengers bumped from overbooked flights who will be able to get to their destination within an hour.

All Airlines, with the exception of JetBlue, engage in the practice of overbooking and passenger bumping.  Under its “contract of carriage” United is entitled to bump passengers from overbooked flights.  However, in most circumstances, bumped passengers are entitled to compensation, though the amount is capped by federal regulations and varies from Airline to Airline.

Technically, United is within its rights to bump a passenger from a flight it has overbooked.  Rule 25 of United’s contract of carriage states that the airline may deny boarding on oversold flights after volunteers are sought.   However, while Airlines can remove any passenger who exhibits aggressive or harmful behavior, the contract says nothing about roughing up a passenger because he declines to give up his seat.   The contract also doesn’t say anything about forceably removing a passenger who has been seated – only that the Airline may deny boarding to a passenger.

Airlines usually consider several factors in deciding which passengers to bump, including connecting flights and how long a bumped passenger would be required to stay at the airport.  United’s contract states that fare class, check-in time and status of frequent flier membership may also be considered. Passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors also get preference to remain on an overbooked flight.

Although compensation does vary from airline to airline, Federal regulations require Airlines, at a minimum, to pay bumped passengers who will get to their final U.S. destination between one and two hours of the original arrival time double the original one-way fare, up to a limit of $675.  And, when a bumped passenger will arrive at a destination more than two hours late, airlines have to pay 400 percent of the one-way fare, up to a limit of $1,350.

When deciding who must be bumped, Airlines usually choose the people with the cheapest tickets because the required compensation is lower.  They also try to avoid bumping frequent flyers and other regular customers.  According to Department of Transportation data, more than 46,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights in 2015. United Airlines alone bumper more than 42,500 passengers with confirmed reservations in the last five years because of overbooking.Presumably, United could have avoided the situation altogether by simply offering more money to anyone who would voluntarily give up their seat – or make other travel arrangements for its flight crew.

The Department of Transportation is said to be reviewing the incident and considering changing the rules that govern passenger bumping.  According to Department of Transportation data, from October to December of 2016, nearly 9,000 passengers were denied boardings, including 891 by United.   It may be time to either change the rule that permits Airlines to bump passengers at all or change the rules governing passenger compensation or reinstating Rule 240, which formerly required airlines to provide a displaced traveler with a seat on a different carrier.  The bottom line is this can happen to anyone, especially passengers flying economy class, and consumers need to take how an Airline treats customers when deciding which Airline to fly.

Be Sociable, Share!

Previous post:

Next post: