By now, you probably have heard the news about a passenger who was removed forcibly from an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville this weekend because he wouldn’t leave on his own.
Technically, the airline was perfectly within its rights to bump him after none of the other passengers volunteered to give up his or her seat.
Industry experts say these rights are laid out in the Contract of Carriage that serves as the underlying legal document to which passengers agree when they buy a ticket. This document forms the basis of every ticket and establishes rules that adhere to fundamental Department of Transportation regulations that apply to all commercial flights.
The rules stipulate that in oversold situations, airlines first must seek volunteers to deboard and forfeit their seats. As part of these offers, airlines have to dole out flight credits and other incentives to sweeten the deal.
In the event that nobody steps forward, however, airlines then can trigger what a United spokesman referred to Monday as an “involuntary deboarding situation.”
In other words, airlines can bump people at will, so long as they give displaced passengers full refunds.
How do airlines decide who to bump? That’s where the situation gets tricky. According to travel-industry expert Henry Harteveldt, a cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, most airlines use computer algorithms to determine who gets booted and when. He notes that this algorithm likely is a function of where you’re traveling, the number of people in your party, whether there are children involved, your frequent-flier status, your fare, and potentially even where you bought your ticket.
“Generally an airline will be more likely to bump people on a flight to an outbound destination or traveling locally rather than those making a connection, so they’re inconveniencing someone who’s only going from Point A to Point B,” he explains.
As for passenger rights in oversold situations, Harteveldt says, “As a passenger on a U.S. airline, you don’t have very many rights.”
Ironically, an industry report ranking airline quality came out Monday stating that the number of people who were involuntarily deboarded decreased in 2016 from 2015. Specifically, the Airline Quality Rating (AQR) 2017 indicated involuntary denied boardings per passenger improved to 0.62 per 10,000 passengers in 2016 (down from 0.76 per 10,000 passengers in 2015).
The AQR report also showed United was one of nine airlines to show improvement in 2016.
Despite this data, it’s difficult for anyone who travels on a regular basis to fathom how and why the man on the United flight was removed the way he was. Still, how can you prepare for this scenario on your future travels?
For starters, know the math. It’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in an oversold situation in the first place, much less one that leads to an involuntary deboarding.
Second, consider the perks. United was offering up to $1,000 in travel vouchers for volunteers to give up seats before the airline was forced to remove people involuntarily. When Delta Airlines dealt with overbooked flights this weekend, it reportedly offered travel vouchers and gift cards to major retail stores. Sometimes, the deals are worth taking.
Finally, if you find yourself in the unlucky spot of being chosen for involuntary deboarding, go quickly and quietly, and save your outrage for customer service representatives and agents back at the gate. Play your cards right and you might even get more than the refund to which you’re entitled.