Boy, did my Twitter feed go bonkers last night. I wrote yesterday about a horrific situation with a United Airlines passenger getting dragged off a plane. There seems to be some genuine misunderstanding about the facts of the situation and the rights of the passenger in this case that I wanted to clarify.
It started with a Twitter conversation I was having with my good friend Doug Ulman. He runs a great organization that raises money for cancer research. If you only take one thing away from today, go visit them and make a donation. At any rate, I woke up this morning to a Twitter explosion. There were some folks not clear on the facts, not a surprise given this was a unique situation to some degree. But, the point at which I was likened to a Nazi, I figured it might be time for a bit of clarification.
I’m not some United apologist. If you look at my Tweets and other public comments, I’m frequently critical of their actions. They can absolutely run a better airline. They frequently don’t.
I’m taking as fact that United did not oversell the flight in question. Overselling is a tactic the airlines employ to make more money. They expect a certain number of passengers to no-show. If the numbers don’t work out, there are more passengers than seats. Passengers are offered money to voluntarily take a later flight. If not enough people volunteer, then the airline has to select someone to leave the flight. Those passengers have legal rights to compensation.
In this case, the airline doesn’t appear to have purposely oversold the flight. At the last-minute, when boarding was fairly complete, 4 United crew members showed up for the flight needing to get onboard so they could operate the return flight to Chicago the following morning. If United didn’t board them, then every passenger on the return flight the following morning doesn’t get where they’re going.
Faced with that situation, United went through their procedures for seeking volunteers. When they couldn’t get enough volunteers, all hell broke loose.
What You’re Entitled To
The DOT is pretty clear on your rights in this situation. Quoting in part from their website:
DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t. Those travelers who don’t get to fly are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay:
- If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
- If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
- If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
There’s a lot more, but that’s legally what you’re entitled to. There are a few folks who look like they may have some legal background claiming that you have a right to your seat once you’ve boarded the plane. To my knowledge, there are no laws that give you an absolute right to fly in this situation. DOT regulations are clear on compensation. But, the airlines’ contract of carriage gives them the right to revoke your boarding pass, even if you already boarded.
Bottom line? It doesn’t matter if you already boarded. The airline can still ask you to leave. And, you have a legal obligation to comply. As I wrote in my earlier post, you have a legal right to comply even when you’re right and they’re wrong. I was in a situation like this last year where I almost didn’t end up getting home because of a power trip by a flight attendant.
Am I A Nazi?
Great question. I don’t think so.
Seriously, let’s go through the various people involved and how this horrifi situation could have been avoided.
United Airlines’ Employees
The agents dealing with the passenger absolutely had the right to call law enforcement to remove him. He refused to go. That being said, they absolutely could have done more to avoid the situation. I suspect they’re not allowed to offer more than $800 in compensation for a volunteer. If that is the case, then United needs to install safeguards with airport supervisors to help deal with situations like this. If the airline doesn’t want to give every gate agent the authority to extend compensation over a certain amount, then have a supervisor in each station that can approve in extenuating circumstances. A passenger who has already boarded their flight is absolutely an extenuating circumstance. United probably saves themselves a lot of grief if they had such a procedure in place. Wandering Aramean says it best. Carrot, stick.
They were trying to solve a weird issue. If they don’t remove 4 people from the flight, then everyone on the return flight doesn’t get where they’re going. I think we can throw shade at United for getting themselves into this situation. Hard to say without all the facts. But, the United crew needed to fly, and a difficult decision needed to be made at some point.
This is the part where I was called a Nazi. I agree what happened to the passenger was abhorrent, horrible, senseless. But, rewind to before he got dragged off the plane. Hear me out.
He no longer had a valid ticket. The airline had the legal right to deny him passage that day. They did so. Regardless of the fact that United should have done more, they had the legal right to ask him to leave.
At that point, the passenger has no legal right to remain on the plane. It appears he was asked to leave multiple times. He refused. Law enforcement was called and he was asked to leave again. When those efforts failed, chaos ensued.
But, before the chaos, this passenger had the opportunity to leave the plane under his own power. He didn’t deserve anything that happened to him by the police. Don’t confuse that with the fact that he was legally obligated to leave the plane.
In the end, it’s because of the actions of the officers in this situation that we’re even discussing this incident. If the passenger is coerced off the plane by law enforcement without force, this is a non-issue. I’m not a police officer, nor did I ever wear that uniform. I’m sure there’s an argument to be made in every situation that force is required at some point. The situation didn’t seem like it had reached that point here.
United called the cops to remove the passenger. In most cases, when a police officer tells you to move, you move. That didn’t happen here. When it didn’t happen, I really think law enforcement and United employees should have considered some other options here. That’s easy to say in retrospect. But, the belligerence of the passenger was a direct result of an odd situation.
And, in any case, nobody deserves to be treated like that, especially when they’re acting in a non-violent manner. Sure, I get the passenger was being obstinate. But, there are no reports he was acting in a violent manner.
The Final Two Pennies
There are absolutely lessons to be learned here. United needs better policies to handle edge situations like this. I think Oscar Munoz is a very competent CEO who will recognize that, while they were within their rights to remove the passenger, they could have done more to diffuse the situation.
There’s an important lesson to be learned by passengers here, and not one I think is 100% fair. When you’re on a plane and a crew member tells you to get off, your refusal puts you at odds with the law. We can argue that bad apples can take this too far in certain situations, but it doesn’t change the underlying premise. You’re legally required to follow crew instructions when you’re on a plane, including when they tell you to get off that plane.
Law enforcement? I can’t tell you I have a magic bullet solution, but the methods used weren’t the right ones. Not if you have any compassion for your fellow human beings.
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