[Above]  Bloodied United Airlines passenger, Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged from his seat to make room for airline crew members on a Sunday overbooked flight at O’Hare International Airport.  Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO on Monday called the incident “an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”  Munoz is to receive the PublicRelations Magazine coveted “Great Communicator Award.”  Munoz said the airline is trying to reach the passenger to “further address and resolve this situation.”

In the wake of a rapidly evolving scandal, shares of United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) plunged nearly 7 percent in after-hours trading between Monday and Tuesday, then rebounded in the lead-up to market open Tuesday morning, only to fall once more by at least 2 percent, edging back up above $70 by the early afternoon.


United Airlines Did Not Have the Legal Right to Refuse Service to the Doctor Dragged Off Its Plane


It’s far worse than we thought,  Cynthia Than, founder of “Cross Circles,” says that the Airlines Did Not Have the Legal Right to Refuse Service to the Doctor Dragged Off Its Plane

A widely circulated tweet and many major news outlets, including the New York Times and CNN, incorrectly reported that United Flight 3411 was overbooked. 

The practice of overbooking allows airlines to keep prices low for consumers since overselling seats means that a flight has a greater chance of being full. However, other passengers on the flight, and the CEO of United Airlines, explained that the flight was not, in fact, overbooked but that four passengers had been requested to give up their seats for crew members who had to commute to Louisville, Kentucky, to work on flights the following day.

Even The New Yorker, which understood that passengers were bumped for crew members, referred to the problem as an “overbooked” flight, clearly not understanding what overbooked actually means. (The only way the flight could have been overbooked would be if flights always have empty seats for unanticipated crew members to fly for free, which would defeat the purpose of overselling in the first place.)

The fact that the flight was not overbooked may seem trivial, or pedantic, but there is very important legal distinction to be made. There may not be a difference in how an airline (typically) responds when it needs additional seats, such as asking for volunteers who wish to give up their seat for a voucher or cash.

But there is a legal difference between bumping a passenger in the instance of overselling a flight versus bumping a passenger to give priority to another passenger. Any thoughtful person can see the problem that arises if an airline were allowed to legally remove one fare-paying passenger to allow for another passenger it prefers.

Since the flight was not actually overbooked, but instead only fully booked, with the exact number of passengers as seats available, United Airlines had no legal right to force any passengers to give up their seats to prioritize others. What United did was give preference to their employees over people who had reserved confirmed seats, in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. Since Dr. Dao was already seated, it was clear that his seat had already been “reserved” and “confirmed” to accommodate him specifically.

A United Airlines spokesperson said that since Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat and leave the plane voluntarily, airline employees “had to” call upon airport security to force him to comply. However, since the flight was not overbooked, United Airlines had no legal right to give his seat to another passenger. In United Airline’s Contract of Service, they list the reasons that a passenger may be refused service, many of which are reasonable, such as “failure to pay” or lacking “proof of identity.” Nowhere in the terms of service does United Airlines claim to have unilateral authority to refuse service to anyone, for any reason (which would be illegal anyway).

The law reads as follows:

In videos of the incident aboard an United Express flight bound for Louisville, Ky., a man screams as security officers pull him from his seat. He then falls silent as they drag him by the hands, with his glasses askew and his shirt pulled up over his abdomen, down the aisle. Several passengers yell at the officers. “Oh my God, look at what you did to him,” one woman yells.

Originally, the aviation security officer who pulled the man from his seat was placed on leave the following day. However, “pending a thorough review of the situation,” the other two police officers involved in the fracas were also placed on leave now that the Chicago Department of Aviation has seen the video from different angles.

“The incident on United Flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions are obviously not condoned by the department,” the statement read.

United confirmed passengers were made to give up their seats for crew members that needed to work on flights departing Louisville. “Had they not gotten to their destination on time, that would have inconvenienced many more customers,” said United spokesman Charlie Hobart.

Unfortunately for United Airlines however, the airline’s inability to plan ahead does not make it a passengers obligation to accommodate, especially when airlines have the ability to book a smaller flight to get their crew to the other airport. And most especially when they could have rented a car and driven the distance which would have been a 4 hour drive.

The United Express flight was operated by Republic Airways, and the four crew members were Republic employees, he said.

It wasn’t clear why the airline waited until passengers were in their seats to bump them from the flight and it doesn’t matter.

Another passenger on the flight, Tyler Bridges, said United asked for volunteers at the gate to take a later flight, offering $400 and a hotel stay. Bridges, of Louisville, said passengers were then allowed to board the flight.

Once the flight was boarded, passengers were told the plane wouldn’t depart until they had four volunteers, Bridges said. United increased the offer to $800, but no one raised their hand.

Bridges said passengers were then told a computer would select four passengers. When the man who was removed was selected, he contested, saying he was a doctor who needed to see patients Monday morning. Bridges’ wife, Audra, posted a video of the incident on Facebook, which has been shared more than 49,000 times and viewed 3.8 million times.

The man was warned that security would be called if he didn’t leave, Tyler Bridges said. After security personnel came and spoke with him, he still refused.

“It was clear he wasn’t going to come off unless they were to drag him off,” Tyler Bridges said. “He was resisting any way he could. He was flailing his arms a little bit and yelling.”

After he was removed from the plane, Tyler Bridges said the man reboarded the aircraft. Tyler Bridges posted a video on Twitter showing the man, who United has not identified, hurrying down the aisle, saying repeatedly, “I have to go home. I have to go home.”

United replied to one of Tyler Bridges’ tweets, saying “Tyler, this is very concerning. Can you please provide the flight number and details via DM? Thank you.”

Hobart said employees followed United’s procedures in seeking volunteers and, when unsuccessful, explaining the situation to the customers it chose to bump and involving law enforcement if a customer refuses to follow the airline’s rules. United is reviewing the incident, he said.

Airlines bump passengers off overbooked flights all the time, but it’s rare for them to do so after passengers are already in their seats, said Brian Sumers, airline business reporter at travel industry website Skift.

“If you do it by the gate, you may make someone very upset, but you’re never going to get in a situation where you need to forcibly remove them,” Sumers said.

It’s also unusual that United was unable to find passengers willing to give up their seats in exchange for the travel vouchers.

Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt questioned why United didn’t simply offer a larger sum.

“Everybody has their price. If they had allowed the agent to offer a higher incentive, we may never have heard about this,” said Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group.

Hobart said United tries to come up with a reasonable compensation offer, but “there comes a point where you’re not going to get volunteers.”

At that point, United’s contract of carriage says the airline can select passengers to bump to a later flight, based on a priority system that can take into account how much passengers paid, how often they fly, whether missing that flight could affect a connecting flight and how early they checked in. People with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are generally last to be bumped.

Usually, passengers — however angry — comply with the airline’s orders. But even if it’s an unusual situation, it raises questions about what rights passengers have when being removed from a flight against their will, Harteveldt said.

“I think United is going to have to take a look at how it handles involuntarily denied boarding when passengers are already on the plane,” he said.

Even if United was following all its policies to the letter, the situation calls for some flexibility in offering extra compensation or considering moving to the next name on the list when a passenger flat-out refuses to budge, said Harteveldt.

The damage this incident has caused to United’s reputation may already be irreversible, at least for some customers, said Matt Rizzetta, CEO of New York-based public relations firm North 6 Agency.

“It certainly doesn’t bode well for their immediate future in terms of customer loyalty and customer retention,” he said. “There’s a significant portion (of customers) they’ve already lost.”

 

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