- Getty Images/Scott Olson
Law-enforcement officers removed a passenger by force from United Airlines Flight 3411 in Chicago on Sunday. Airlines such as United select passengers to be involuntarily denied boarding based on a number of factors, including the fare class of their tickets, frequent-flyer status, their itinerary, and when they checked in to the flight. When you buy a plane ticket you agree to the airline’s “contract of carriage,” which leans toward protecting its own interests.
The incident stemmed from the passenger’s refusal to leave the plane after he had been bumped from Flight 3411 to Louisville, and it highlights the practice bumping ticketed passengers from flights. In many instances, airlines oversell their flights, using algorithms that calculate the likelihood people will cancel, not show up, or run late. But there are times when passengers call the airlines’ bluff and they all show up for the flight.
That’s actually not what happened here. A United Airlines representative told Business Insider that Flight 3411 was not overbooked – in contradiction to a statement released by the airline Monday morning. Instead, the airline needed to bump four passengers from the flight to make room for pilots and crew it needed to transport down to Louisville to operate flights later that evening. “What happened with United was exceedingly rare,” aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt told Business Insider.
Regardless of the cause, airlines follow a specific procedure when they’ve got more passengers than they can carry.
First, airlines will ask for volunteers – through email, at check-in, or at the gate. These requests for volunteers will typically come with anything ranging from cash to hotel rooms to a first-class upgrade on a later flight.
According to Harteveldt, there is no federal limit to the amount of money an airline can offer its passenger to deplane.
But this doesn’t always solve the problem.
When there are simply not enough volunteers, an airline can deny boarding to any remaining passengers.
Statistically speaking, this rarely happens. According to Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle University’s “Airline Quality Rating” study, involuntary denied boardings fell to just 0.62 per 10,000 passengers last year.
Unfortunately for the Louisville-bound passenger, he was selected as one of the passengers to be bumped.
His selection, though, wasn’t random. He was chosen based on a series of criteria.
Based on United Airlines’ contract of carriage (more on that below), passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are the least likely to bumped from a flight.
- United Airlines
For everyone else, the contract says that the airline’s decision is based on a passenger’s frequent-flyer status, the layout of his or her itinerary (whether the passenger has a connecting flight), the fare class of the ticket, and the time he or she checked in to the flight.
This means passengers who bought more expensive tickets have higher frequent-flyer status or checked in early are less likely to be bumped.
Contract of carriage
Buying a plane ticket isn’t so much a straightforward purchase as it’s an agreement to adhere to the airline’s contract that spells out the terms of service for the flights. The agreement is called a contract of carriage.
“Customers do agree to a contract of carriage when they purchase a ticket with clear stipulation and it’s available on United.com,” an airline representative told Business Insider.
Every airline has one and they are usually available on their website. They are long and complex and filled with legalese. (Delta’s is 51 pages long.)
As with any contract written by a single party in that agreement, it’s heavily tilted toward the protection of the airline’s interests.
Do airlines have the right to throw you off their planes even if you haven’t done anything wrong?
“Yes,” Harteveldt said. “Remember, it is their aircraft and their seat – you’re just renting it to get from point A to point B.”