The Consent of the Governed – What the United Airlines Incident Says About Us (Part 1 of 2)

Dominating the national news this past week was the story about a United Airlines passenger who was dragged off a plane on Palm Sunday night in Chicago, Illinois. The flight had been overbooked and four United Airlines flight crew members needed to bump four paying passengers from the flight so that the crew could travel to Louisville, Kentucky, in time for a flight they were scheduled to work the following day from that city.

Then unknown to most airline passengers, including those on this flight, was that when they purchased a plane ticket each one entered into a contract with the airline. That contract provides passengers with the right to travel on the plane to their intended destination, provided that the airline does not need the passenger to vacate their seat for any one of a variety of reasons, including transporting flight crew members to another location.

When passengers must be bumped, the airline first asks for volunteers willing to give up their seat in exchange for a later flight and additional compensation in the form of cash or a voucher.  Preferably, this is done prior to boarding. If, after requesting volunteers, additional seats are still needed, the airline may begin to involuntarily bump passengers. Whoever is bumped is then booked on a later flight and given additional compensation for their inconvenience.

Unfortunately, in the recent United Airlines debacle, the airline did not disclose its need to bump passengers until after they had already boarded the plane. Adding to the dilemma, the airline did not have a reasonable plan for what to do in the event an involuntarily bumped passenger refused to exit the aircraft. United Airlines had a sticky situation on its hands.

To say that United did not handle the problem well would be a ridiculous understatement, as the media aptly showcased via smart phone video taken by other passengers on the same flight. When the only way you can accomplish your objective is by forcing someone else to physically do something, you’re in trouble. So, with the benefit of hindsight, what else could United have done?

Many have suggested the airline staff should have just kept upping the ante until someone accepted their offer and voluntarily left the plane. I understand there was no policy or procedure in place allowing staff to offer any amount in excess of the current maximum compensation. Even if there had been such authority, do we really want to give passengers the right to hold flights hostage in these circumstances until the airline pays them a high enough price to redeem their seat? In the future, United can and should increase the amount of its bumping compensation and the number or type of vouchers that are offered so that these are effective incentives for passengers to voluntarily be bumped. Passengers unwilling to miss their flight for $800.00 or one voucher good only for a future flight in the continental United States, may reconsider when they are offered $1,500, two vouchers, or an unrestricted voucher for a flight good anywhere United flies.

Other people proposed that the flight crew just rent a car and drive from Chicago to Louisville. Maybe – but that would have meant a five to six-hour drive at night the evening before their next flight. Instead of being rested and alert to work that flight, the crew may have been tired, potentially placing their next passengers at risk.

Better options for United to have considered under the circumstances were:

  1. Refuse to depart until all the necessary seats had been surrendered. Briefly explain to the passengers the airline’s right to bump passengers under these conditions. Advise passengers that one of the people selected to be bumped had repeatedly refused to leave the aircraft. Explain to the passengers that the plane would not be taking off until either that passenger had exited the plane or another volunteer stepped forward and relinquished their seat.
  1. Notify passengers that if either the bumped passenger or another volunteer did not leave the plane within the next few minutes, everyone on board would be required to disembark the airplane until the situation had been resolved. If any passengers refused to leave the aircraft, advise them that security will be called and they will be escorted off the plane, under restraints if necessary. Once all passengers are off the plane, refuse to allow the bumped passengers to re-board. Airline security should be near the boarding gate prepared to restrain anyone who became disruptive, hostile or violent.

The most important headline from this incident, however, is not United’s outrageous conduct in dragging a passenger from their plane after he repeatedly refused to comply with the terms of his contract with the airline and leave the plane as directed.

The real story in this series of events comes from the reluctant passenger’s defiant and unreasonable response to being notified that he had been bumped, and the public’s unwillingness to find fault with that response. Part 2 of this article will address that dangerous state of affairs.

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