Top business travel tips to keep in mind about overbooked flights.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins. Thank you.”
Now please leave.
You may have witnessed the disheartening video clip from United Airlines flight 3411, where a reluctant passenger—a doctor—is forcibly removed—dragged—from an overbooked flight in order to make room for an airline employee.
The clip went viral and the social media response was irate. There were thousands of angry responses and United’s initial apology missed the mark when it came to addressing people’s concerns. It was a brand fiasco.
United Chief Executive Oscar Munoz called the incident “upsetting” and apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” however the review of employees’ conduct did not address the harsh treatment of the paying passenger.
There were accusations of racism and a call to boycott booking United flights. The Los Angeles Times reported that the event drew 110 million readers on Weibo—a Chinese rival to Twitter—and over 72,000 comments.
United has experienced two social media controversies in less than a month. In March, the airline drew outrage after a gate agent stopped two teenagers from boarding a flight because they were wearing attire that violated dress code for people who fly under a friends-and-family program of United employees: leggings. The policy was dubbed sexist and outdated on social media.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
As a business traveler, what do you need to know about your rights when aboard frequently overbooked flights?
We hope to illuminate just what rights you have when in similar situations going forward and the top business traveler tips and best practices you can incorporate into your business travels to avoid any tumultuous experiences.
Was United in the Right?
The infamously overbooked United flight—under contract by Republic Airways Holdings Inc.—from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, Kentucky was far from unique. The crew asked for volunteers to give up their seats—for United crew members—for upwards of $800. No one wanted to volunteer, so passengers were chosen at random and told they had to exit the plane.
(If United wasn’t able to board these employees, the flight would have been canceled.)
The passenger in the viral video clip refused to leave—he was a doctor with patients to see the following day—and Chicago Aviation Department police officers “acted outside of standard operating procedure” and violently removed him from the plane, leaving the man bloodied and in need of a hospital visit.
One of the officers was put on leave, however there is a broader conversation about United’s, if not all airlines’, rights in this situation.
Munoz added, “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to do above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
There are obviously “lessons we can learn from this experience,” Munoz pointed out, such as “treating our customers…with respect and dignity” no matter how challenging overbooked flights may make situations.
Terms and Conditions
Deep in United’s Contract of Carriage there is a statement on the airline’s right to deny boarding to passengers in the instance of overbooked flights:
“If a flight is [oversold], no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.”
With that in mind, and taking into account that “boarding” could mean any period before the plane physically takes off, you can be told to leave at any point before liftoff.
Yes, even after ensuring that our seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position, your seatbelt is securely fastened, and all your carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you… or in the overhead bins. Even then.
What was atypical was removing a seated passenger after boarding. “I cannot recall the last time I have seen or heard about a gate agent going onto a plane to remove a revenue customer from that flight because of involuntary denied boarding,” shared aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt.
“To remove a paying customer from a flight is extremely rare.”
United stated that it was investigating the incident and has declined to identify the passenger. After agents couldn’t attract volunteers to leave in exchange for compensation, United employed company “protocols” to choose four passengers to remove. Three complied.
United said, “One customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.” There is a bit more to this selection process in this instance:
“The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.”
Fly Rights and Business Traveler Tips
You should know these practices certainly aren’t exclusive to United. The biggest U.S. airlines bumped 475,054 passengers from flights throughout 2016.
In its “Fly Rights“, the Department of Transportation writes that it requires all airlines to provide a written statement to passengers bumped from planes describing their rights and explaining how they decide who gets a seat on an oversold flight.
Here are the top business travel tips to know beforehand: