Was United Actually Within Their Rights To Remove Passengers From Flight 3411?

The controversy surrounding the removal of passengers from United flight 3411 earlier this week continues to grow.  There wasn’t a ton of outcry early on when I posted about it.  Things got much louder on Twitter overnight (and a whole lot of other places).  I decided to weigh in with some more clarity on key issues here.

Some commenters on that post brought up some interesting points:

Felix wrote:


UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons: …”

None of those terms apply in this situation. Getting a crew to a destination in not a valid reason to remove a passenger.

Matt wrote:

At the risk of getting attacked (or being called a fellow nazi, etc)….I’ve been in this situation many times, as I’m sure most frequent flyers have been. It sucks, but it seems the most outraged folks maybe fly once or twice a year and don’t get the realities – especially as you indicated,on the return route crew, etc. I also find it amazing that all the other passengers had no issue pulling out their phones to record all of this activity, yet (and making an assumption here) when the gate agents announced a need for volunteers, not one came forward. So the agents had to choose someone themselves. Seeing the activity unfold, those same passengers did not stand up and say ‘this is awful, I’ll just get off and take their deal’. Personally, I believe the ‘fellow passengers’ have some culpability here. Again…..expecting that I get some blowback for this sentiment.

Iolaire brings up another point about timing:

Ed, do you really think the boarding pass was voided at the time of removal? i.e. was it verbally voided or if we look at the time stamp in the reservation system was it voided prior to law enforcement coming to remove him? That’s an interesting thing to think of, did he actually hold a voided ticket or was he just not following the instructions of crew…

Ben from One Mile at a Time draws the distinction between denied boarding and refusal of transport.

Lots of issues at hand here.  Before we get too much deeper, I think it’s clear there is no clear answer here.  This is likely something that will need to be settled by the courts.  I imagine United agrees to a private settlement offer long before it gets in front of a judge.  In a way, that’s a bit of a shame as it would be good to have some clarity.

I think both Felix and Ben bring up a good point.  This passenger may not have been denied boarding.  If it was determined he was a properly boarded passenger, this may be refusal of transport.  I don’t believe that’s the case, but I’m trying to look at the issue from all sides.

Here’s a link to United’s Contract of Carriage.

I think a good lawyer would argue the following points of “refusal of transport” apply:

  • Passengers whose conduct is disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent;
  • Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives;
  • Passengers who, through and as a result of their conduct, cause a disturbance such that the captain or member of the cockpit crew must leave the cockpit in order to attend to the disturbance;

The counter argument is that he only became belligerent because of United’s illegal action to remove him.  I think a more valid argument to have is whether he was a “Passenger” (capital P) at the time of the incident.  United defines a passenger as follows:

Passenger means any person, except members of the crew, carried or holding a confirmed reservation to be carried in an aircraft with the consent of the carrier.

Did he have a confirmed reservation at the time he was removed?  Probably.  Was it with the consent of the carrier?  Probably not.  Am I a lawyer?  Nope.

I suspect that the time of his removal, he was no longer a Capital P Passenger.  None of us really have that information. United probably does, but I doubt we’ll ever see a published timeline or proof of such from them.

The Final Two Pennies

There’s a reasonable chance Felix is correct here.  This is an edge scenario that requires a detailed reading of the Contract of Carriage.  Was United at fault for removing the passenger as “refusal of transport”?

I cited Matt’s comment above because it really does encompass the whole issue in an interesting way.  Folks are blaming United for not reacting better at the time.  As we parse the issue further, it’s possible United may have acted in a way that their Contract of Carriage didn’t allow.  But, Matt’s point is that the passengers could have stepped up to settle the situation.  I’m not sure I’d blame the passengers, nor do I think Matt is advocating doing so.

Rather, I think he’s trying to say that at the point someone looks like they’re going to get carried off an airplane for something they didn’t do, everyone involved probably could have found a little better way to handle the situation.

The post Was United Actually Within Their Rights To Remove Passengers From Flight 3411? was published first on Pizza in Motion



  1. Crossing the plane’s threshold isn’t relevant to 14 CFR 250. If a passenger boards a full flight, finds their seat is broken and the airline cannot or will not fix prior to the plane’s departure and the customer is removed from the aircraft that passenger receives involuntary denied boarding compensation under this rule, rather than treating it as ‘refusal to transport’.

    Involuntary denied boarding refers to an airline not having as many seats available for customers (for a variety of different reasons) as there are confirmed passengers on the flight, whether a gate agent has scanned a boarding pass or not.

    That said, United is taking so much heat from this that the do not want to trust a political process or a jury with any consequences here regardless of the regs.

  2. The guy was a drama queen. Short answer is yes, UAL had the right to deny boarding. Rules of carriage. Sick of the emotional reactions. This guy brought it on himself. Good on the Chicago Aviation Police. I side with UAL.

    1. They didn’t deny him boarding, he was allowed to board the plane. The issue is whether or not they had to the right to ‘refuse transport’, as stated above. Had they denied him boarding, which was clearly within their rights as an airline, there would of been no possibility of this incident occurring.

      1. Joshua, I don’t think this is a clear cut case of refusal to transport at all. I don’t have proof it’s denial of boarding, but I think if this goes to court we’re going to see an interesting discussion about what actually constitutes a boarded passenger. I suspect the physical act of scanning a BP and stepping on the plane won’t be “boarding”.

  3. In the end, whether they had the right or not, United did not handle this well from a public relations/customer service position from start to finish. That is what is going to hurt its business more then whether they were following their rules or not. This escalated into a crisis when It likely could have been diffused earlier on. It certainly wasn’t handled well once it reached a crisis state. Its messaging post-event simply made things worse.

    1. Tag Along Deb, no doubt United made a mountain range out of a mountain with their PR efforts. I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt that they were acting in haste. But, I’m not sure they were.

  4. I don’t agree the man was a drama queen and am offended with the lack of empathy by the comment. I believe after he refused, the request for passengers to volunteer should have been asked a second time, before violently removing him and dragging his body through the plane. This is assault and if the passenger was a child or female, would they enforce this same level of brutality? I seriously doubt if the passenger was a child, United would separate the child from its parents regardless of their random selection protocol. If this man was deliberately selected by United employees then this selection process should be seriously examined further since it could raise questions of discrimination.

    1. Debbie, my strong suspicion is that they used whatever process UA’s computer system dictates to select the passengers to bump. I agree that they should have tried a bit more honey before switching to vinegar.

  5. Lot of ‘Monday morning quarterback’ reactions and appears most from those that know least about the rules. Matt has a good point about all the other passengers. If the gate agent had more authority to offer higher compensation maybe someone might have accepted the offer. Leaving out whatever UL could have done, two ‘parties’ are at fault, the passenger refusing to move, the security officer response. Clearly, dragging the customer out of the aircraft is not acceptable. It will be interesting to see how the entire airline industry responds. The “Nazi” comment was likely a ‘ready – fire – aim’ response.

    1. Mike, I agree there are a lot of strong opinions about what should have happened (and how UA is responsible). I think the incident can be used to adjust policies so it never happens again. But, I think there are a lot of folks who believe they are operating with facts when they’re not.

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