The incident that occurred on Sunday, April 2nd aboard a United Airlines flight departing from Chicago's O'Hare to Louisville has been declared one of the worst public relations disasters in history. And with good reason. Let's face it: it is unconscionable to rip a 69 year-old, paying passenger from his seat and drag him down the aisle of the plane after he has boarded the aircraft, period. It's even more infuriating knowing that the four seats that caused the overbooking situation were needed for United crew members who were deadheading (flying as a passenger on airline business to work another flight) to the flight's final destination in Kentucky where they were to board another flight.
This situation could have been avoided. There's this little thing called 'yield management'. United knew in advance of the flight that every seat was sold, and while the airlines are permitted to oversell their seat capacity, the gate agent should never have allowed passengers to board in the first place if they were going to need seats for crew. Offers of compensation (see below) for 'bumping' (being denied your seat even thought you have a paid ticket and a boarding pass showing a seat assignment) are generally made while the passengers are still in the waiting area preboarding. Those being bumped are usually the last economy fares to arrive at the gate.
I have experienced airline gate agents offering compensation to individuals who willingly give up their seats prior to boarding the aircraft. In fact, I have seen people go up to the gate agent and offer their seat in advance of any overbooking announcement, in lieu of compensation plus the promise of another flight leaving in a reasonable amount of time from the original one on which they were scheduled. I am also aware that people have been denied boarding (bumped) because they are late arriving at the gate and their seats have been sold to standby passengers. However, in my 30+ years of flying for business or leisure, I have never seen anyone forcibly removed from their seat, while already on board, due to an overbooking situation.
To add insult to injury, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz's two callous initial responses only served to further fuel a public relations disaster that was already burning out of control. A series of computer glitches grounding planes coupled with less-than-satisfactory customer service in 2016 and 2017 had already placed the airline in a weakened position against its competition. With social media what it is these days, the damage to United's image as a result of passengers' videos of this outrageous event being posted to Facebook, YouTube et al, created a public outcry that has negatively affected the airline's reputation.
But we're not here to talk about how United will overcome this terrible incident and resulting media catastrophe, captured - along with the horror expressed by other passengers on the flight who witnessed it first-hand - on someone's cellphone and which has gone viral. Our purpose is to ensure that our clients are fully aware of their rights and the limitations on those rights when they purchase airline tickets.
Why are airlines permitted to overbook their flights?
The plausible answer is that the airlines want to fill up every seat on their flights. Back in the day when airline tickets were refundable, 10-15% overbooking was 'acceptable' because of the possibility of 'no-shows' due to a more lenient airline ticket refund policy. However, if you think about it, most airline tickets sold today are purchased in advance and are nonrefundable. It seems logical, therefore, to assume that the airlines are going to make their money on that seat whether it's occupied or not (in the case of 'no-shows'); anything els