United Airlines flight: Everything you need to know about overbooking and passengers' rights

How does overbooking happen – and what are your rights when it all goes wrong?

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 11 April 2017 15:20
United Airlines passenger is dragged off plane because airline overbooked

The case of the airline passenger dragged from a United Express plane at Chicago O'Hare airport has raised many questions about airline passengers' rights. Simon Calder, travel correspondent of The Independent and frequently overbooked himself, tackles the key questions.

Is it legal for the airline to treat a fare-paying passenger like this?

Yes. The captain is in charge of the aircraft. And if he or she decides that someone needs to be offloaded, that command has to be obeyed. From the moment that the unfortunate individual in this case said, “I’m staying put”, he became a disruptive passenger. He was disobeying the captain’s command. Officials were legally entitled to remove him, and they did so using plenty of physical force.

It appears from the evidence that the law was broken – by him, not by the airline. But I would be surprised if United pressed charges.

Does it happen often?

No – normally airlines handle cases when too many passengers are chasing too few seats much better than this, and generally do so at the gate. First, the airline asks for volunteers. The idea is that everyone has their price: an amount of cash, travel vouchers or other bribes such as a round trip anywhere the airline goes.

Flexible travellers, including me, actively pursue overbooked flights to keep our travel costs down. When I’m flying around the US, I keep my plans flexible so that when they say, “We’re inviting volunteers to travel on a later flight in return for $400 in future travel,” I’m the first to step forward. It’s a curious kind of auction in which the airline keeps upping the offer until enough people decide to take it up. Normally everyone ends up happy: all the people who really need to travel are able to do so, and people like me with a bit of flexibility end up with more than we paid for the ticket in the first place.

What went wrong in Chicago?

The whole episode was very seriously botched. A group of flight crew needed to be in Louisville, properly rested, in order to operate the next morning’s plane. Had they not been able to get there, then many more passengers will have had their plans messed up. The big mistake the airline made was allowing all the fare-paying passengers to board, and then trying to entice enough people off. It would have been far better to conduct the auction at the gate. Preventing someone boarding is less harmful and upsetting than dragging them kicking and screaming from their seat.

Surely anyone who’s booked a plane ticket has the right to expect that they will travel?

That sounds reasonable, just as someone with a seat at a football match or the theatre can be certain they won’t be turfed out of their seat. But in aviation there are lots of reasons why you might not be allowed to travel. Sometimes because of a technical issue, a smaller aircraft has to be substituted. Or “weight and balance” concerns may mean the full payload can’t be carried. But mainly the reason is overbooking: the practice by many airlines of selling more seats than there are available on the plane. When everyone shows up, something has to give.

Should overbooking be made illegal?

Plenty of people think so, saying it is immoral to sell 200 tickets when there are only 190 seats on a plane – and it should be against the law as well. But overbooking, when properly conducted, is beneficial for everyone. On a typical flight, according to Britain’s biggest budget airline easyJet, five per cent of the passengers don’t turn up. Passengers with a desperate need to travel are able to book on flights which are technically full. Planes fly with more passengers, which is better for the environment. Everyone who volunteers to be offloaded is happy because they have probably earned more cash than the ticket cost. And the airlines say that by selling more tickets than there are seats, they can keep fares lower for everyone.

What does the law say about overbooking?

For flights within Europe, and on EU airlines anywhere in the world, passenger-rights rules stipulate payment of between €250 for the shortest flights to €600 for long-haul flights for anyone who is involuntarily denied boarding.

In the US, a sliding scale applies. If the airline is able to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation. If you get there between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you twice the one-way fare with a $675 maximum. And if you arrive more than two hours late(four hours internationally), the compensation is four times the one-way fare, to a maximum of $1,350.

Elsewhere in the world, rules vary, and in many locations there are no laws on what the airline must do.

The airline seems to have said the passengers were randomly selected. Is there no appeal process?

Normally the gate staff or cabin crew will make an informed decision when passengers make representations about why they absolutely must travel. If someone is going to a wedding or funeral, or they have a job interview, or they’re a surgeon due to operate the next day, they will be prioritised. Someone without so pressing a schedule, such as a travel journalist, will be selected instead. But inevitably at airports the clock is ticking, everyone is stressed and things can go wrong. However important the journey is to you, if you are instructed to leave an aircraft and your appeal fails, just go quietly.

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