Social media exploded recently when a passenger aboard a United Airlines branded flight was forcibly removed from his seat by airport security, in part to make room for four airline employees who needed to be at the intended destination to crew another flight. (No doubt to the chagrin of United CEO Oscar Munoz because the fact that the flight was actually run by one of the airline’s regional affiliates, Republic Airlines, was lost on the general public.) This raises the question: When you pay for your airline ticket, do you have a legal right to a seat on the airplane?
It is a fact of life that airlines routinely overbook their flights. Put another way, they sell more tickets than there are available seats. Overselling inventory would not be acceptable in most other businesses but, not only is it common in the aviation industry, it is perfectly legal.
Surprisingly, however, the practice doesn’t usually result in a significant dust-up captured on video and shared across the Internet. According to the Federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2015 more than 613 million persons were boarded on flights run by the nation’s largest air carriers. Only 552,000 were denied boarding and, of those, only 46,000 were involuntarily denied boarding. (The rest were voluntarily “bumped,” meaning they took another flight and/or received compensation from the airline for their inconvenience.)
So, should you draw a line in the sand if you become one of the unlucky and are involuntarily denied boarding or are asked to leave an overbooked flight when other volunteers aren’t forthcoming?
First, federal regulations require that the carrier offer you compensation for a voluntary bump. There are no hard-and-fast rules about how much or what has to be offered as an incentive. According to “Fly Rights,” a pamphlet published by the Department of Transportation on the subject (available here), “Carriers can negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation.” So if what’s being offered isn’t enough to interest you, don’t be afraid to ask for more.
Second, understand that even though you have paid for a ticket, you are not absolutely guaranteed a seat. Your rights will be governed by the airline’s Contract of Carriage, which does not assure you the availability of a seat, even if you have paid for the ticket. Instead, the airline reserves the right to decide who will be given priority as to seats. For example, United’s Contract of Carriage says that the priority of confirmed passengers “may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, status of frequent flyer membership, and the time when the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.”
Third, the Contract of Carriage probably limits your ability to recover compensation from the airline if you are involuntarily denied boarding. Again, under United’s contract, liability is limited to actual, proved damages, which cannot exceed $1350. You may be far better off bargaining for compensation than standing firm and trying to bring a claim later.
Finally, keep in mind that the Federal Aviation Regulations empower the pilot-in-command of an aircraft to determine whether any individual can be denied transportation on the basis of safety concerns. Such authority cannot be exercised with unfettered discretion. Rather, the decision to deplane a passenger must be reasonable and can be reviewed by a court if challenged. But it’s probably wise to think twice before refusing a directive from the pilot to deplane.
There’s little doubt that getting involuntarily bumped can disrupt travel plans and be distressing. No one wants to be forcibly deplaned. If this unfortunate situation befalls you, use your smartphone to check the contract of carriage and make sure that you are fully compensated, as is your right.
Darrell Clay is a partner in the Litigation services group of Cleveland-based Walter | Haverfield with a practice focused on aviation law, complex civil litigation, and white collar criminal defense. He is an instrument-rated commercial pilot.