United Airline can kick anyone off their flight and its legal, or is it?

If you follow news or even if you are on any of the social media platforms, you must have caught the air about United Airlines’ hospitality. “We put hospital in our hospitality” seems to be the new motto of this airline, as per one contributor to the #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos hashtag.

Airlines kick passengers off of over-booked flights all the time. United kicked 3,765 paying customers off flights last year alone. Some are generous enough to offer compensation and make alternative arrangement. So what’s so special about the news this time?

What makes this case so special is the fact that it could have been any of us. This blood soaked guy we all see, who just wanted to go home and attend to some patients could be you. That, United Airlines could get away with this demeanor and even blame the ‘Disruptive and Belligerent’ passenger for the whole thing. Why? You ask, because it is legal.

The incident was recorded by many passengers on board the United Airline flight and went viral pretty quick. As a result this shamble has sparked a backlash from masses on social media. We are all wondering how this could have happened.

Although different carriers have different processes, generally an airline will overbook in order to avoid the potential loss from no-shows. Airlines overbooking flights is a relatively standard practice and passengers, whether they realize this or not, agree to the policy when purchasing flight tickets.

Federal rules indicated that a carrier must ask for volunteers to give up their seat and if no-one steps forward, they can involuntarily force them off the board. As was the PR response from United Airlines that claimed its staff were all “following established procedures

In the case of the United Express flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday, four crew members were required to board the plane in order to work from Louisville the following day. While it is customary for airlines to negotiate the number of passengers on board a flight, NBC reported it was unusual that such protocol took place after everyone had boarded the plane. However they hinted that airline may not have broken any law in their conduct.

In the internal letter sent to employees by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz claimed the passenger who was unwillingly removed from the flight had “raised his voice and refused to comply.” The letter, which was leaked to media, also mentioned that, “(Crew members) were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

In this whole situation,  all that the U.S. Department of Transportation states is that each airline must “give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.” Looks like United Airlines have done everything under the law, right?

The situation might not be as black and white as United’s leaked letter makes it look. If we refer to the United’s Contract of Carrier, which is the legal document that governs the terms of contract for a passenger flying aboard United, we may spot a few gray areas. As aptly highlighted by DailyKos, rules 5, 21 and 25 are the most relevant section of the document to this situation.

Before boarding the flight passengers were made aware of the situation, governed by rule 5(G) that says “All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.”

Rule 25 guides through the process of denying or compensating a passenger on an oversold UA flight that originates in the U.S.A. or Canada. This is the rule everybody is talking about but what’s worth noticing is the subject of this rule; It says DENIAL OF BOARDING. This rule applies before the passengers have boarded.

However, United did find a volunteer to take a later flight before boarding and proceeded to board the plane. As reported by a witness, who also made the video, airline personnel came on board and announced that due to the fact they needed to transport four airline employees, four passengers needed to get off the plane; this was after the passengers were all aboard. At this point, the relevant rule is not Rule 25, it’s Rule 21.

If you read through the rule, it talks about the circumstances under which an already boarded passenger can be removed from the flight. It talks about the situations where passenger is being disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent; fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives; being a threat to safety of other passenger, flight crew and hampering the operation of the flight; and so on. However, it’s hard to understand that what part of this rule applies to a passenger passively sitting in his assigned seat.

United may be trying to shift the blame by calling the passenger ‘Disruptive and Belligerent’ and may want to make it look like they followed all the rules, it is not hard for anyone to see through the situations.

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