Most people have very frustrating stories of airline employees, particularly gate and ticket agents, flexing their virtually unfettered power, especially in the age of increasing concern about terrorist attacks.
The latest incident which has set social media on fire sets the stage for a discussion a long time in the coming. Specifically, in virtually no other place in American society is there such a complete imbalance between power and authority and lack of any checks and balances. (For those who are wondering about legalities and options scroll below to “Legal Issues”).
Airline employees are vested with virtually unfettered power to decide who gets on or off of an airplane for virtually any reason that they deem appropriate; they can cause — and have caused — planes to make emergency, unscheduled landings with minimal justification, many times, having nothing to do with any potential danger to passengers or the plane; and they are notorious for yanking passengers from planes for reasons which would not arouse any concern in other walks of life — so much so, that it has been the subject of movie scenes.
In other industries, including law enforcement — from street cops to FBI agents — where we have given a group more authority or power than average citizens, we have also balanced that with checks on such power. Police are subjected to so much scrutiny that they have increasingly expressed frustration with those checks getting in the way of them doing their jobs or even cause them to place their lives at extra risk.
Law enforcement personnel are regularly the subject of lawsuits, increased legislative scrutiny, various investigative bodies — both internal and external to their agencies — and even criminal probes. Yet, airline employees, with striking regularity, not only bully passengers, but use the threat and actual force of armed police personnel in order to enforce their will. At the same time, they are not the subject of any form of scrutiny outside of the press and social media. Public shaming and outrage seems to be the only avenue that passengers have.
History has taught us that giving unfettered power to any individual or group of individuals without appropriate checks and balances only leads to abuse, as it has in the case of airline personnel. They are given those powers, without appropriate training, and without any consequences in the case of abuse.
In the latest incident, airline personnel used the power of law enforcement, not only to inflict injury on a paying passenger who was rightfully in his seat, but also did so because of their own pressures having nothing to do with passengers. The airline had overbooked the plane, and they had the added need to transport a crew. So, they went after the group over which they have the most power.
Not only that, but then, they blamed the passenger for the event — he refused to give up his seat when they told him that he has to because of business decisions they made.
United’s response to the incident demonstrates exactly the problem. The company seemed to blame the customer and only apologized for “the overbooking situation.” The statement later released by United’s CEO Oscar Munoz was no more comforting as he apologized “for having to re-accommodate” customers, as if the passenger had been merely asked to switch seats, but more importantly, completely ignoring the underlying problem of using almost whatever means to accomplish their goal, no matter how absurd it is.
Ultimately, this incident is not just United Airlines’ problem — it’s an industry problem. Lawmakers and regulators must step in.
Check out the footage of the outrageous incident:
Here’s another angle captured by a second passenger:
If you are interested purely at the lay of the land — meaning what United or the passenger legally can or cannot do — things are not exactly fair for the passenger, again, making the case for legislative or regulatory intervention.
First, there are a few facts that need to be cleared up as different versions of this story seem to floating around. Soon after the passengers boarded the flight, United announced that four of them would need to relinquish their seats in order to make room for United employees who were flying to work a flight out of Louisville. So, while the flight was, in fact, overbooked, the incident was not related to the overbooking — it was related to United’s sudden business need to transport four of its employees to another city. Overbooking is a process where an airline sells more tickets than seats on its plane anticipating that a certain portion of passengers will cancel.
United first tried raising its offer to passengers for giving up their seat to $800. However, there were no takers most probably because relinquishing one’s seat meant losing an entire day — a work day.
At that point, an airline employee announced that they would have a computer randomly select four passengers to leave the plane, though it is not clear whether that is a command that is available at gate agents’ computers. When the passenger in the video was selected, he refused to leave, noting that he was a doctor and had to see patients the following morning. At that point, United called officers to the scene resulting in the scene in question.
Legally, airlines can turn away paying customers, something that happens many thousands of times a year. Airlines commonly overbook flights anticipating that a certain proportion of passengers will ultimately cancel or not show up. This does not typically result in a problem as the statistics they use substantially reduce errors.
Also, according to its contract of carriage, United can deny boarding on overbooked flights if passengers do not accept compensation. Under Rule 25: Denied Boarding Compensation,
Boarding Priorities – 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.
The rule is silent regarding forcible removal after boarding, or whether United’s need to transport its own employees qualifies as an “Oversold” situation, though the plane meaning of the term specifically does not include it.
Although many travelers, particularly frequent ones, have had personal experience with overbooked flights and announcements at the gate seeking passengers who are willing to take another flight, it is still quite rare. In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the share of passengers denied boarding is only about one in a thousand. Another report, the 2017 Airline Quality Rating — released just this morning — states that involuntary denial of boardings are at about six in 100,000 passengers.
United’s employees could have made much better efforts to avoid the incident altogether, however. Under the law, passengers are not allowed to demand more than $1,350 in the case of being bumped from a plane. However, airlines are not subject to the same limit when they are the ones making the offer. In this case, United did not even offer the $1,350 that the passenger could have demanded. Regardless, it had the option of upping its offer to a level which would ultimately get volunteers.
Simply put, United treats its customers in this manner because it can. It is part of an industry that is all but a monopoly where just four companies control 80 percent of all domestic seats sold in the country. They are sheltered from antitrust regulation. They are also largely shielded from litigation — meaning customers have little recourse to sue them in court.
Even if customers were to try to challenge the fine print in airline contracts, due to the assault that the U.S. Supreme Court has launched against class actions for the past decade or so, they are likely unable to band together as a class to sue the company. Instead, they are left to file individual cases, most of which are very small dollar — in the hundreds of dollars or few thousands — where it is impossible to retain a lawyer on contingency and it is cost prohibitive to pay for representation by the hour.
So, even looking at the legalities, one only ends up at the same point: legislative bodies and regulators have to step in to provide adequate checks and balances and to level the playing field for consumers.