The United Airlines Passenger Forced Removal And the Law.

United Airlines “re-accommodating” a passenger.

United Airlines defends their forcing passengers off a flight based on their “Contract of Carriage.” Federal regulations at 14 C.F.R. 250.1 et. seq. also apply. Neither provides any justification for UA’s forcing passengers off this plane, to include one passenger dragged off after being knocked unconscious.

The Facts.

First let’s review the facts. UA, contrary to many reports, did not “overbook” this flight. It was full, but all ticketed passengers had seats and boarded. After boarding UA decided that four more of its own employees needed on the flight to crew another flight at the destination. UA claims that otherwise the flight they were to crew would have run late.

So UA attempted to bribe passengers into giving up the seats they already occupied. They offered up to $800, but there were no takers. So, rather than offering more, UA used its own methods to choose four passengers to remove from the plane. Three begrudgingly did so when airline officials asked. One did not, and Chicago Airport Security was called in to remove him, and they violently did, injuring him in the process.

The “Contract of Carriage.”

Let’s start with that United Airlines Contract of Carriage which they claim allowed them to remove the passenger. A lengthy document, to say the least, but we start with its definition of “oversold.” Per UA’s own Contract of Carriage:

Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.

That is not what happened here. The number of available seats equaled the passengers holding valid confirmed tickets. So right away we can see the oversold flight provisions do not apply. There were enough seats for passengers holding valid confirmed tickets. There were not enough seats to accommodate the UA employees who were flying free, really with no tickets, or at best “unsold” tickets.

Further, everyone had already boarded. Which means we move to situations where the airline has authority to “remove from the aircraft” a passenger. While that list is lengthy, none of the points on the list apply (and UA does not claim they do). It generally deals with passengers who break rules, haven’t paid, present a safety threat and so on. It does not include circumstances where the airline just wants to give its own employees an already occupied seat.

The oversold seats compensation policy in the Contract of Carriage does not discuss any situation where someone is removed after they board the plane. Rather, it discusses policies for circumstances when someone will be “denied boarding.” Quite clearly, once boarded the policy discussed above, regarding removing a passenger applies and nothing within it applies to this situation.

The Regulation.

The FAA Regulation at 14 C.F.R. 250.1 is, if anything, even less favorable to UA’s position. While it does not define “oversold” it does define a passenger with a “confirmed reserved space.”

Confirmed reserved space means space on a specific date and on a specific flight and class of service of a carrier which has been requested by a passenger . . . and which the carrier or its agent has verified, by appropriate notation on the ticket or in any other manner provided therefore by the carrier, as being reserved for the accommodation of the passenger.

So the passenger at issue not only received a “confirmed reserved space” he was sitting in it.

Now here’s the thing. The regulation requires that the airline give priority to passengers with confirmed reserved space. Per Section 250.2a:

In the event of an oversold flight, every carrier shall ensure that the smallest practicable number of persons holding confirmed reserved space on that flight are denied boarding involuntarily.

So in choosing between passengers with a “confirmed reserved space” and those without (such as the airline’s own employees), the airline must give priority to those with confirmed reserved space. It’s also notable that the regulation also only discusses denying boarding, and not removal once boarded.

In my opinion the legal justifications cited by the airline for removing this passenger do not apply. It is a big PR problem for United Airlines, but it is not just a PR problem.