By now, I can imagine a lot of you have seen the dramatic footage of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in order to make room for United employees that needed to board. According to United, the flight was overbooked, and they requested volunteers for anyone who would be willing to relinquish their seat for compensation. Reports suggest that passengers were offered as much as $800 as well as lodging expenses to allow themselves to be bumped, and even media outlets have reported on how unusual it was that no one was willing to accept the deal. When that proved unsuccessful, they were forced, according to statements from United, to allow the computer to choose who would be bumped and consequently removed from the already fully boarded plane.
While allowing the plane to board completely before realizing it was overbooked was unusual, and all passengers refusing a payday in exchange for their flight was surprising, what happened next would secure United Airlines a spot in the bad press hall of fame. Dozens of passengers witnessed (and filmed) an aviation security officer board the plane and physically remove a middle-aged man from his seat and then drag the now-bleeding passenger down the narrow walkway in the middle of the aircraft.
Just what possessed the aviation security officer to get so physical in his efforts to remove the man, or why the man was so passionately unwilling to relinquish his seat are both interesting tid-bits of this story – but ultimately, they’re inconsequential in regard the bigger question this situation poses to the public: what rights do you have as an airline passenger?
SOFREP’s staff have a lot of things in common; among them is the fact that we’re all pretty well-traveled folks. I’ve personally been to more countries than I can count on all my fingers and toes, and I’ve got the commensurate number of commercial flight horror stories to accompany that list. I’ve had airline employees be rude to me in languages I hope to never understand, lost bags across time zones more often than I’ve arrived at a destination on time, and slept more nights under the atrocious airport fluorescent lights in some months than I have in my own bed… and over the years I’ve slowly learned the same lessons that poor man had forced down his throat by aviation security in a matter of seconds: airlines don’t owe you anything.
Now, I’m clearly speaking from a legal sense, not from the perspective of an angry passenger that can’t believe his flight’s been canceled again – if you’re interested to know how I’ve handed that in the past, you can easily run through my Twitter feed until you find three days’ worth of ranting and raving at American Airlines for leaving me stranded in Pennsylvania a year or two ago. I’d rather you didn’t – I’m not proud of how whiny I got at around the thirty-six-hour mark of wandering around Philadelphia’s airport, but suffice to say, I felt as though their customer service representatives owed me at least an explanation for my trouble as a paying customer. That inferred debt, however, wasn’t based on a legal requirement to appease me, but rather the logical behavior of a company that wants to retain a customer.
When you book a flight, one of the numerous agreements we all anxiously click past is referred to in the business as a “contract of carriage.” This agreement, like the terms and conditions of Facebook, are usually ignored by passengers as they plan their vacations or business trips, but define clearly what the airline owes you in exchange for your money.
“Airline contracts of carriage do state that your seat isn’t guaranteed, and there is language in them to cover refusing to fly someone at their discretion,” George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, told reporters after the video made the rounds on the internet.
“Passengers have far fewer ‘rights’ than they imagine.”
You can find a comprehensive list of your rights as an airline passenger, as well as what to expect from your carrier, in a handy website put together by the Department of Transportation called Fly Rights, but I’ll spare you the trouble in this case.
Technically, as long as the airplane is still at the gate, airlines can remove you from your seat and doom you back to the purgatory of the airport waiting area while still falling under the legal definition of “involuntary denied boarding” (regardless of whether or not you’ve actually already boarded).
Once in your seat, you aren’t given the legal right to refuse to leave (as the man in this case attempted) thanks to another rule with intentionally vague and abstract wording: Any action or behavior that is judged to be “interfering with the flight crew” is technically against the law – including sitting quietly and refusing to get up when they ask.
Now, that isn’t to say that this situation played out the way it was supposed to, and the aviation security officer filmed yanking this pour guy out of his seat has already been suspending pending an investigation. This whole ordeal has also turned into quite the black eye for United Airlines regardless of what the law dictates, with one video of the event already racking up more than a million views by the time this article is being written.
As I mentioned earlier, the team of writers at SOFREP have a lot of things in common; travel, as I mentioned, is certainly one of them, but another is born out the military service that led us to chasing employment with this site… we’re often not shy about a fight. I’ve made my own interests in having my face re-aligned a matter of public knowledge, and although I’m far from the sort of person to look for trouble, I think I could be fairly described as the sort of person that won’t walk away from trouble once it finds me. Bear that in mind when I offer you this next bit of advice: when an airline tells you to get off a plane, just get off the plane.
Do you deserve to be treated so rudely? Of course not. As a customer do you have a right (in the minds of public opinion) to express how upset you are over being treated badly? Absolutely. The thing is, you also agreed to let the airline treat you only slightly better than the luggage they’ll probably lose in exchange for your ticket – and in order to maintain their schedule, they’ll gladly piss you off over the hundred or more folks waiting for your plane at its next stop.
I’m not arguing that any airline should treat their customers badly – but when they do, it’s up to us to take our business elsewhere. If each “somebody oughta do something about this” post on Facebook were coupled with a real passenger choosing to fly American as a result of this incident, you’d better believe United would put a stop to this sort of thing right away. If they reduce the price of their flights by just enough to make them pop-up at the top of Priceline, Kayak, or whatever other flight purchasing search engine you may be using, it’s up to you to make your voice heard then.
If we fail to do so, this has just been another revolution of the internet rage machine, destined to be stifled by the rage of whatever comes next and then immediately forgotten. Call me a cynic, but I’ll probably take the pragmatic approach and assume this latest outrage will give way to whatever Pepsi commercial we agree to be angry about next, and I’ll stick to my earlier recommendation: when the airline tells you to get off the plane… you might as well just get off. It’s a fight you’ll lose on the plane, and again in a court of law.
When a guy who’s wrestled alligators for fun tells you a fight isn’t worth it – you can rest assured it probably isn’t. Save your anger for when you’re buying your next ticket, and let your voice be heard through your wallet.
Image courtesy of Men’s Health