Should airlines be able to kick off paying passengers once they are onboard a flight?

Owatonna, MN Correspondent-Most travelers forget that their airline ticket is a legally binding contract with the carrier. They all have provisions for what can be done with extra passengers on overbooked flights. In the case of most airlines, their entire contract could fill a hefty book, and the section on removing passengers from their seats on the plane once they are onboard is detailed and extensive.

In the legal sense, airlines are entitled to remove passengers from an overbooked flight as long as they follow their own contract. The real question seems to be: Is it fair? In one sense it is not because we buy tickets from a carrier for a certain destination on a certain day and we expect that if the check didn’t bounce, or the credit card wasn’t turned down, we are entitled to our legally purchased seat on the plane. But it’s only unfair because 99.9% of passengers have never bothered to read and understand the contract, so they don’t know precisely what their money has purchased for that ticket.

We expect an airline ticket purchase to be like any other retail seat or space purchase, but it’s not. Sports stadiums don’t oversell their seats, nor do theaters or other venues where seating is limited. If airline travelers wrongly assume a plane ticket is the same as a ticket to a football game, they shouldn’t cry foul just because they didn’t bother to understand the rules.

Airlines have managed to tilt the rules in their favor by being allowed to sell more seats than are available on any given flight. They know a small percentage of passengers will either cancel or not show up, so overbooking is a way to increase profits. That is definitely unfair to passengers who may have critical business or personal reasons to be on the flight and can’t quickly revise their travel plans.

As long as both parties understand the terms of their agreed upon contract, it is fair for airlines to kick passengers off planes when they are overbooked.

Prescott Valley, AZ Correspondent– Airlines should not be able to kick off paying passengers once they have boarded a flight, but airline passengers need to remember and come to realize, more so since the recent fiasco with United Airlines, that they are basically going into an agreement with the airlines, which is in full force when they buy a ticket and board a plane.

Every airline has similar agreements that are spelled out in pages and pages of legal documents that have detailed rules for flying as well as access to a passenger’s personal information, along with other liabilities, which include refusal to transport. This gives airlines like United the right to remove passengers for a number of issues that include improper clothing or no clothing, body odor, drunkenness or drug intoxication, seat occupancy specifications, pregnancy, and other physical infirmities.

The problem is that back in 1978 Congress (Airline Deregulation Act) gave the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulatory power for commercial air travel, with safety and air traffic control given to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The DOT is supposed to enforce consumer protections against the airlines when the rights of passengers are violated. So, if passengers want to make claims against different airlines, they have to rely on the DOT to enforce the rules, but the DOT will only operate within the restraints of the Congress.

In the midst of all the problems with United Airlines and their extremely rough and hasty removal of a doctor from a flight in order to accommodate their own employees, a new bill has been proposed in Congress by Senator Chris Van Hollen. The “Customers Not Cargo Act” would prevent airlines from booting passengers after they have boarded a flight when overbooking occurs and when an airline needs space for its own employees.

Another cog in the airline’s wheels seems to be whether it is even necessary to boot passengers at all to accommodate airline employees. Apparently, most airlines have agreements with other carriers to give discounts to employees with other airlines. The United flight in question could have easily sent their employees to another airport in the vicinity, gotten them on another flight and on to their work destination at the appointed time.

United could have handled the situation considerably more effectively had their management from top to bottom used common sense and tact in the bumping situation. Instead, they revealed their inadequacies as a carrier when the problem could have probably been resolved had they just sent their employees to another partner airline; however, United did offer the booted passengers, which were randomly selected by computer, $800 in compensation and hotel rooms to give up their seats for the employees. The doctor just did not want to participate as he had patients to see the next morning, but that still doesn’t let United off the hook.

If United and other airlines cannot accommodate their own employees with flights to other work destinations, they must stop overbooking and find alternative ways to get their employees to where they need to be. Regular airline passengers should not have to make up for the mistakes of airline management and their last minute shuffling of passengers.

Who is to say if the proposed Senate bill would alleviate this kind of mismanagement, particularly with lobbyists and airline attorneys moving in to waylay any direction by the Department of Transportation (DOT) to help passengers caught in impossible situations?

Maybe United Airlines and other airlines will finally realize they better get off their high and the mighty practice of bumping passengers off planes, but passengers must, too, realize the risks when they purchase a ticket and understand there is the chance of being kicked off a plane once they are onboard.

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