United wasn’t having a great day. Two separate videos–one showing aviation security officials dragging a passenger out of his seat and down the aisle, and the other revealing him bleeding and disoriented after the ordeal–went viral on the Internet. As the social media clamor rose, United’s CEO issued a statement regretting the need to “re-accommodate” passengers, which served only to worsen the matter by adding tone-deafness to brutality as descriptors for the airline.
The incident left many wondering what legal recourse passengers actually have in such a circumstance. There are also some who are starting to wonder whether United acted within its legal rights at all. The Department of Transportation is now reviewing the entire incident, saying
“The Department of Transportation (USDOT) remains committed to protecting the rights of consumers and is reviewing the involuntary denied boarding of passenger(s) from United Express flight 3411 to determine whether the airline complied with the oversales rule. The Department is responsible for ensuring that airlines comply with the Department’s consumer protection regulations including its oversales rule. While it is legal for airlines to involuntary bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities.”
There appears also to be at least some question as to whether the the forced removal of the passenger was permitted under United’s standard Contract of Carriage, which spells out many reasons in Rule 21 why passengers can be removed, none of which appear to mention overbooking. And while United and apparently the Department of Transportation are viewing this as circumstance where someone was “involuntarily denied boarding” the notion of “boarding” is not clearly defined in the contract either. The fine print does spell out in Rule 25 what kind of compensation passengers are entitled to in the event they are involuntarily denied boarding, so putting aside the question of whether he was already boarded or not, those provisions are governed by federal law, and they provide some basic protections.