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Do You Really Have to Get Off a Plane If An Airline Overbooks?

United Airlines brutal ejection of a passenger to make room for their own employees crosses a line.

Short answer: Yes. 

Airlines are legally allowed to remove passengers from flights for nearly any reason — including to vacate a seat for someone else.

— NPR (@NPR) April 10, 2017

So here’s the scenario. You’ve been making airline connections all day before arriving at O’Hare in Chicago. It’s late, you’re tired, but you have just one more United flight left.


And then…the thump that signifies a mic being switched on before the crisp voice with the just-detectable base note of defeat begins: “Attention, passengers for Flight [X]. Your flight has been overbooked, and we’re looking for volunteers who will take a later flight in exchange for $[Y] and accommodations. (It’s not real money — it’s a voucher from the airline.) Everyone at the gate looks nervously around, hopeful that someone with a more flexible schedule than yours steps up. If no one does, the airline ups the ante, in hundreds of (voucher) dollars. Most of the time, the required flexible flyers are found, and you’re eventually on your way. But what if they aren’t?

Note: The airline may be lying anyway. On a recent United flight, a woman was seduced out of her seat for an impressive sum before being returned moments later when the gate officer changed United’s mind, and four people were yanked summarily off the plane.

This week, a passenger was violently pulled off an overbooked, Louisville-bound United plane at O’Hare when he refused to leave due to overbooking. The man was a doctor who refused to miss the flight that would get him to Kentucky in time for the patient appointments he had in the morning. He and three others were being left behind to make room for four United employees.


And this being 2017, there were plenty of camera-phone angles.

#neverflyunited it is disgraceful. @United overbook #flight3411 and decided to do this:

— Adrian James (@Rerun57) April 10, 2017

The bloodied man eventually ran back onto the planet saying, “I have to go home. I have to go home.” They removed him the second time on a stretcher. 

The brutal treatment of a paying customer elicited an amazingly tone-deaf corporate-speak “apology” from the airline for the overbooking, though not the violence.

United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411.

— United (@united) April 10, 2017

The CEO of United, Oscar Munoz apologized for having to “re-accommodate” the customers. This re-accommodation, occurred, of course, after de-accommodating them.

And yet, their removal of the man was, in principle, legal. (He’s likely consulting his attorneys now.) Here’s what it says in the contract you agree to when you buy a ticket on United:

Boarding Priorities - If a flight is Oversold, no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.

Not that it mentions anything about forcibly removing passengers after seating.

The fact is, we normal people don’t have much in the way of rights as passengers these days, and airline travel has only gotten more and more distasteful since Jimmy Carter deregulated the industry in 1978.

Every time you fly these days — especially on United — it’s like they’ve never done this before and are just beginning to figure out how to get multiple aircraft to multiple destinations on something that passes for time. You’d never guess this is an industry that’s been in existence for nearly 100 years, and one you’d have expected to have worked out the kinks long ago.

United Airlines stewardesses, 1968 (KURTCLARK)

While flying on any airline can be a trial these days — and O’Hare is notorious — United seems especially out of control. A flight leaving on time and without incident is the exception in my experience these days (I live in an area in which United is the exclusive carrier.) They also seem exceptionally abusive to the people who keep them in business, kicking two teens off a flight a few weeks ago for wearing leggings(?), and with a pilot on another flight ranting so violently about politics and divorce that some frightened passengers got off the plane before it hit the runway.

Speaking of abuse, it’s clear that United’s problems don’t start with the poor people who staff their customer service stations and phone lines. This is clearly a badly-run company with a toxic corporate culture.


How miserable must it be to have to deal with furious customers all day long with no real remedy to offer passengers when they’re bumped from a flight, or when a flight is cancelled for United’s convenience? This has to be one of the worst places to work in the industry — doing this day after day, it’s no wonder they don’t always strike the best tone in dealing with customers: After being stuck in O’Hare one night, I got on the phone with a UA rep who spent 45 minutes complaining to me about his iPhone warranty! Huh?

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So it's in this “you don’t want to be here, and neither do I” context that we should perhaps view the event of the other night. It began with an apparently cold, “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off,” and went downhill from there. As the situation escalated, passengers shouted, “Can’t they rent a car for the pilots?” Again, after 100 years, you’d think they’d have better ways to get crews where the airline needs them to be.

When the doctor refused to move, local law enforcement was called in to forcibly remove him. Since the incident, the Chicago Aviation department has put out their own statement: “The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department. That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation.”

According the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, passengers being forced off all carriers’ flights due to overbooking is on the decline since the late 1990s, falling to about one passenger every thousand. The 2017 Airline Quality Rating puts it at six per thousand. In my own experience, I’d say it happens on about three out of every five flights. But then again, I’m flying United.


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