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How to Keep Your Seat on a Plane: The United Incident and What This Means for Passengers

To assess this situation with 20 years of airline industry knowledge, Rhyse Woodward, Resident Travel Industry Expert and airline retiree, to weigh in. Here are her insights:

A video went viral today of a doctor being forcibly dragged off his flight in an overbooking situation. The video is naturally causing outrage against the airline, staff, crew, and the law enforcement officer(s) involved. It has created a media crap storm for United. Someone may lose their job over this fiasco, but not for the reasons you may think. I’ll get to that later. In this post, I’m not going to delve into where the blame may or may not lie. Instead, I am going to provide a basic layman’s knowledge of what a contract of carriage is, some FAA laws applicable to this situation, and how they apply to us as passengers.

Here is what we know so far:

A passenger boarded overbooked UA3411 from Chicago to Louisville. The flight was scheduled to depart at 5:40 Central Time.

At some point, UA staff determined they needed four seats to get United flight crew members destined for work to Louisville. At this time, it is unknown if this was the final destination for the crewmembers.

Vouchers for $400 were offered along with a hotel stay and rebooking on a flight the following day. Reports say the flight was not until 3 pm the following day. There were no takers. United then offered $800, and still no one took the offer.

United then advised that four people would be chosen at random to deplane. This is known as involuntary denied boarding. After they were chosen, three of those chosen passengers deplaned. The fourth passengers refused to deplane. He said he was a doctor and needed to be on the flight to make his surgery or scheduled appointments with patients. After refusing to follow flight crew instructions to deplane, Chicago Aviation Police was called. It is unclear if there was an air marshal on board or if any other agencies were involved or contacted.

The fourth passenger, again, refused to deplane when directed to do so by law enforcement officers. The law enforcement officer than forcibly attempted to remove the passenger by dragging him off the plane. There is video showing the passenger with blood on his face. The passenger seems to be bleeding as a result of his fight with the law enforcement officer.

Eventually, the passenger was allowed to return to the aircraft for passage

United CEO puts out a statement: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” – Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

The Chicago Department of Aviation has also advised Business Insider that one of the three officers was placed on administrative leave pending a review.

 

Contracts of Carriage

The factual timeline is what has been reported so far. But, let’s get into this ‘contract of carriage’ thing. What is a contract of carriage? What other rules are passengers subject to? These are questions many are asking today with the viral video surfacing today.

There is no way to explain the complexities involved in running an airline and why they are so important to what happened today in a simply blog post. Nor can all the, how-the-hell-can-this-have-happened reasons be answered here. I will try to cover that in another post. What I can do Is, in layman’s terms, give an explanation of what a contract of carriage is along with some other pertinent rules and laws which effect every passenger.

Contract of Carriage covers all the rules you agree to and the laws by which both the airline and consumer are bound. Most don’t read this. I’d never even know it existed until I began working for a airline two decades ago. Some rules used to be printed on the sleeve in which your ticket and boarding pass was held. With electronic tickets, you receive a link of the web address where this information is located. Often, if you request the contract of carriage in writing, airlines will mail you a physical copy.

A Contract of Carriage (CoC) is just that: a contract to which every single passenger who books a reservation, purchases tickets, and flies on that airline agrees. Period. If you do any of the aforementioned, your agreement is legally assumed and binding. Carriage is term used to say, you’re flying on that airline. They, in essence, are carrying you on their plane. A contract you agree to when using their business. Contract of carriage requirements can also vary depend on the country as well.

Here are the topics often covered under a CoC. Wording for each CoC can vary and is subject to the carrier that publishes it. This list is not exhaustive. They are listed in alphabetical order.   Some airlines may have a different topic heading but this is the gist of what most publish.

  • Baggage
  • Cancelations and refunds
  • Change fees
  • Codeshare flights
  • Customer service complaints
  • Dangerous goods
  • Definitions
  • Delays and reroutes
  • Denied Boarding (Voluntary & Involuntary)
  • Disabilities
  • Fare types
  • Firearms
  • International travel
  • Overbooking
  • Passenger Bill of Right
  • Personal data
  • Pets
  • Refusal to transport
  • Reservations
  • Right to change CoC without prior notice
  • Schedule changes
  • Smoking
  • Surcharges
  • Ticket taxes and fees
  • Tickets and ticket validity
  • Travel documents
  • Unaccompanied minors, infants, car seats
  • Waitlist

A CoC tells you what the airline is providing, what they will and won’t do, what you can and can’t do, and what your rights are. For example, a Change Fees topic will cover that some tickets may have a fee if you have a ticket that allows changes and may advise of possible restrictions. A Smoking topic may advise all flights are smoke free and that smoking is banned by the FAA.

In the case of the video showing the man being dragged off the plan, there are several topics which apply. Cancellations, Refunds, Denied Boarding, Overbooking, Passenger Bill of Rights, and Refusal to Transport.

 

What the law says

So, how do you keep your airline seat? You can’t. That is part of what is in the contract of carriage. To begin, the complexity that goes into getting a plane from Point A to Point B is so vast, it would take years to understand. Fortunately, I have those years under my belt, and even then, there are still intricacies and nuances of how an airline works that I don’t know.

Many are wondering how the passenger could have been at fault at any time. Here is what the FAA regulations say.

  • Interfering with the duties of a crewmember violates federal law. Federal Aviation Regulations 91.11, 121.580 and 135.120 state that: “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”

The repercussions for passengers who engage in unruly behavior can be substantial. They can be fined by FAA or prosecuted on criminal charges. As part of the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill (April 16, 2000) the FAA can propose up to $25,000 per violation for unruly passenger cases. Previously, the maximum civil penalty per violation was $1,100. One incident can result in multiple violations.

When a member of the flight crew tells you to do anything, you are obligated to do it. (Side note: A flight attendant usually advises you what to do; if you don’t comply, they usually escalate to the captain who, ultimately, is the one authorizing your removal at their discretion.)

You could be wearing yellow and if the crew sees that as suspicious they can have you removed. You can complain later but if you refuse to follow the direction of the crew, YOU are in violation of FAA regulations. You can then be fined or even jailed. Period.  Once law enforcement is involved, it’s the same thing. You must follow their directions. If you do not, yeah… See the regulations again.

Airlines can deny you boarding, whether you agree or not, as long as they ask for volunteers first.

When you refuse to deplane, you are now interfering with the duties of the crew in their performance and can even be considered unruly, even if you are non-violently protesting. Simply because you are not really allowed to protest. We live in a post-9/11 world and any time a passenger refuses to follow crew requests, you can be considered a threat.

Back to those topics. Airlines Number 1 priority is to get you safely to your destination. Airlines offer safe passage from point A to B. Your ticket, purchased in good faith, doesn’t guarantee the flight you booked nor advance seat assignment or the seat assignment of your choice.

For almost any reason, an airline can refuse to transport. You can protest, complain, or even sue, but airlines still have the right to refuse you passage. This is not to say you have no rights. Airlines are obligated to protect you on the next AVAILABLE flight. They are not obligated to you on another airline. When denied boarding involuntarily you may be due a refund for any portion of your ticket you did not travel. This is also true in the event of cancellations.   A contract of carriage may also contain the Passenger Bill of Rights as it pertains to these topics.

 

Your rights if you are denied boarding

Whenever your flight is delayed or you or voluntarily or involuntarily denied boarding, you are due compensation. How much and whether it is in the form of a voucher, cash, or even a gift card depends on your specific situation and can vary in some ways from one airline to another and whether your flight is domestic or international.

Recently, there was an article on how a family was paid $11,000 because of cancelations, delays, overbooking, and denied boarding. This is NOT the norm. Airlines are not required to give more than $1,350 when a passenger is involuntarily denied boarding or bumped, and again, that depends on the situation such as you are not re-accommodated. This is calculated by multiplying your one-way fare by 400%, again capped at $1350. These rules are often in your CoC and enforced by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

The average denied boarding will NOT receive either of these amounts.

Questions have been asked by everyone watching the clips from the passengers. Many ask how are they supposed to know their rights? They don’t know legalese or even where to go. The airline itself, the FAA, and DOT are valuable resources. You can call the airline and ask them to explain what your rights are in a specific situation. They often will not give compensation amounts because that is subject to change.

 

But why did United wait to deplane the passenger?

Others are asking why they United waited to deplane the passenger. Here is a quick and dirty process most airlines follow.

When airlines realize, they’ve overbooked, they should ask for volunteers before allowing passengers to board. If they get none, a number of passengers are considered. Multiple factors are taken into consideration to determine who will be placed on the denied boarding list. Let me preface, if you are in first class, an unaccompanied minor, or a disabled passenger, you’re not getting denied boarding.

Factors such as ticket price, ticket type, elite status, if you’ve been denied for the same flight, when you checked-in, and whether you already have a seat assignment, all play a part in where you fall on the list to be re-accommodated. Or, the airline could have a system which randomly chooses passengers based on a different set of parameters.

Once on board, if is so rare for a passenger to be denied boarding. United needed to get their crew to other flights. Had those crewmembers missed their flights, there could have been a ripple effect for other flights, other passengers, other doctors. Gate agents are often given direction by supervisors and the Operations Center (or whatever name they use). It’s highly possible, the gate agents were given orders by the Operations Center, last minute, that four crewmembers needed to be shuttled on that flight. With the flight already boarded, the gate agents were possibly then tasked with identifying those to be re-accommodated and begin working with the flight crew to get needed passengers off the plane.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, could United have handled this better? Undoubtedly. Did they need to deplane those passengers? Possibly. Did they have a right to? Yes. Did they exhaust all options before escalating to calling the police? I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think so. Should the flight crew have called law enforcement? I can’t answer that with certainty either way. What I can say for sure is the passenger should not have refused to deplane when requested to do so by the crew and law enforcement.

Now, a man has been harmed and United is facing the proverbial shit storm.   Everyone lost today.

 

Rhyse Woodward is World Traveler, Travel Industry Expert, IT professional, Photographer, and Future Time Lord. She is usually chasing summer around the world but when she isn’t, she’s enjoying good food and better friends. Rhyse is offering a course “Figuring Out Airfares and Other Airline Mysteries” to help people understand, in layman’s terms, how fares work and all the little questions folks have about airline tickets and how to find great fares. You can find information on her course here!

barristourista

I am a lawyer. I am a journalist. I am a writer. I am a photographer. And I love to travel.

9 comments on “How to Keep Your Seat on a Plane: The United Incident and What This Means for Passengers”

  1. I believe your opinion on this falls short in a few areas, firstly, this man was not “Denied Boarding” involuntarily or otherwise, I have read united Carriage contract pertaining to this. The facts are he was boarded and seated. Also, this flight was not “overbooked”, it was full, and its paying customers were all seated and boarded. This sounds more like a cause of “Refusal to Transport”, in which uniteds carriage clause (which I have read) mentions many reasons to refuse, but overbooking is not one of them. This customer did not breach his contract with united, united breached its contract with him.

    FAA government regulations allow for many things, but I do not believe it to be a blanket clause to be abused by poorly planning airlines.

    United should have not allowed this man on the plane, if overbooking was the issue. The courts will agree with him.

    1. Ryan, Rhyse will respond too. But her piece is not an opinion piece. It is a statement of the law, contracts and regulations in this area. I think everyone can agree that United could and should have handled this WAYYYY better than it was handled.

    2. Hi Ryan,
      I think we all agree UA should have handled it differently. As for breach of contract, lawyers can effectively argue either side. Considering this is not the first time this has happened on any carrier in similar, if not exact, circumstances, it will be interesting to see what, if any changes will come about. I’ve seen airlines use denied boarding in this instance and I’m sure they will use it again. This is what I’ve based my opinion on. Again, I’m leaving the right and wrong to the lawyers because I understand why the airlines use it in such broad terms.
      It’s very possible there was no break of contract, but then we get into that gray area of terminology the FAA uses. You opined that you didn’t believe this to be a blanket cause to be abused. I absolutely agree, but it needs to be proved it was abuse. It is a blanket that gives airlines wide latitude and discretion in these situations to do what is best for both the customer AND airline.
      I’ve seen crew use this reg to deplane passengers because someone had a gut feeling a passenger would prove a problem. Please understand I am not saying this is right or wrong. Only what has been used.
      Again, we agree that United should not have allowed this man to board if they needed his seat, whatever the reason. I don’t think the courts will need to weigh-in. I think it will go to arbitration and they will settle. What I hope happens is we get a comprehensive passenger bill of rights and airlines, staff, crew, and law enforcement use better judgement in extreme situations in the future. Thanks for your response!

  2. No, the United flight that Dr. Dao was on was NOT “overbooked” at all, nor was Dr. Dao denied boarding. He was given a boarding pass, he went to his seat, he engaged in no disruptive conduct.
    Rather United Airlines decided that its desire to get employees from Chicago to Louisville allowed them to steal from four passengers who had paid to be conducted from Chicago to Louisville on a scheduled flight. When United choosed to eject passenger to allow its own employees to travel to another location for their next assignment the following day, United stole from paying passengers without their consent.
    United had other options. I could have had the employees drive the 5 1/2 hours to Louisville. It could have put the employees in a chaufeurred vehicle and had them driven to Louisville. It could have chartered a plane and flown the 4 employees to Louisville. It could have brought in flight staff from another location to Louisville. Instead it chose to steal from its paying customers and then lie about the plane being overbooked. Finally, as all the passengers were deplaned in Chicago and the flight didn’t get out until 3 hours late, United’s choices stole from all the paying passengers on board.
    Similarly, the Chicago airport police failed to inquire as to what the real facts were regarding what was going on. The Chicago airport police should have refused to become a part of United’s scheme. And the Chicago airport police should have refused to violate any passenger’s 4th amendment constitutional rights to be free from unlawful seizure so United could supplant paying passenger rights to travel as paid for and scheduled.
    Unfortunately, Ms. Woodward, in failing to call out United’s lies about the flight being “overbooked” and in stating that the airline was entitled to use police to help it perpetrate its theft from passengers, you have failed your readers.
    We need educated writers like you to help stop this kind of dishonest conduct from becoming the new norm. We need educated writers like you to remind citizens, police, and high-level executives like United CEO Munoz that theft, assault, and unconstitutional interference with individuals’ rights to peacefully go about their way when they have engaged in no untoward conduct is not acceptable.
    Please rescind what you wrote above and write, instead, about United’s longstanding practice of ejecting passengers from flights they have purchased (or not allowing them to board) so that “stand-by” or “must-fly” United employees can get to a destination in the paying passenger’s seat. See 12/2012 account of United kicking off paying passengers to allow United employees fly in their seats: http://www.articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-12-25/travel/sns-20121211100–tms–traveltrctntt-ee-20121225-20121225_1_passenger-rights-departure-time-flight-vouchers
    This is despicable conduct and I can’t fathom why you are making light of it or suggesting that it is acceptable or lawful.

    1. Sasha,

      The behavior is despicable. But please show us, in the post, where the situation is being made light of or where we say it is acceptable. Rhyse simply recited the law and the rules; the rest will be interpreted in court, likely. In fact, opinion was left out of the post all together, and we merely reported on the language of the text and how the contract of carriage is worded. But please let me know where Rhyse made light of the situation? Especially since we are both avid travelers and Rhyse has worked in the airline industry for 20 years.

  3. I must say I appreciate greatly the canvas that Rhys has laid for readers. Void of opinion and interpretation as much as possible. It helps me understand the perspective of the carrier a little better.

    That said, it is my opinion that United behaved despicably and while my emotions tell me that Sasha is correct in her interpretation of the incident, I will wait for the courts and other officials to opine on the correct course of action on behalf of the passenger and the travelling public by extention..

    What I find most disheartening is that although Rhys stated clearly in English that she is going to refrain from rendering an opinion, both Ryan and Sahsa saw fit to turn their guns on Rhys and morph the discussion into a mini attack on Rhys and off of United. OK. He got a boarding pass and was seated by all accounts when United wanted more. I got it. What generates the snide comments and criticism of Rhys? hmmm…. What goes around just seems to keep coming around.

    I would love to sit next to Rhys on a long flight and share stories. She seems balanced and can be objective even though she certainly has an opinion. I like that absence of prejudice. Thanks for the article.

  4. One exception I take in your article is that you state “Airlines number 1 priority is to get you safely to your destination”. That is not true. Their number 1 priority is to make money, period. That is why they are in business. They are not in business to ‘safely transport people’.

    This is a propaganda piece written by someone who works for the industry.

    1. Bob, thanks for your opinion. Neither Rhyse nor I have stated our opinions with regard to how the UA incident occurred. I don’t work for the industry but I am an attorney, and Rhyse merely stated with the contract of carriage says and means. That’s all.

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