Overbooked flights: What rights do you have?

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Overbooked flights

United Airlines removed a passenger from Flight UA3411 departing Chicago O’Hare Airport to Louisville, Kentucky on April 9, 2017. The incident sparked social media outrage, it went viral and triggered public boycott of the airline.

The altercation between airport law enforcement agents who boarded the plane to remove the passenger with force was recorded by the rest of the passengers on the aircraft who unwillingly witness what it seemed to be overstepping boundaries by authorities. The passenger refused after being asked by United to give up his seat due to overbooking. He was forcefully removed off the plane, and badly injured as a result.

Overbooking is when there are more seats sold then actually available on the aircraft. A practice widely used by airlines to compensate for flight no-shows.

What rights do we have as passengers after we board an aircraft? If the airline asks us to leave the plane and give up our seat due to overbooking, do we have the right to refuse and say “No”?

With an airline ticket in your hand you might think that you have every right to be on that plane. Undoubtedly, David Dao, the passenger who was already seated on the United Airlines flight had the same idea as he did not want to give up his seat.

However, what most airline passengers don’t realize is that each airline ticket comes with fine print attached to it. It is called the “Contract of Carriage”, it is very lengthy and no one wants to read. Among other things it spells out the various reasons on how the airline can take you off the plane.

When we fly we are subjected to different rules and regulations such as what time to arrive at the airport, how late to check-in, what is the size and weight of the luggage we can carry, what items we can and cannot take on-board, etc. But little do you know that the rules stipulate an airline has the final word on who can board and fly on their airplanes.

The Contract of Carriage can be found on every airline website, and even though it may vary from airline to airline, it is similar in content and guarantees airline rights that say: If a flight is overbooked the airline can deny you a seat against monetary compensation; If a pregnant woman is due in 7 days or less, she can be denied boarding; If you are overweight and cannot buckle-up your seat belt, you can be denied boarding; If you are disorderly, drunk, or violent, or refuse to show an ID, wear no shoes, have unpleasant body odor, the airline can also bump you.

Airlines have the right and do involuntarily deny passengers boarding despite they want to travel. By law they have to offer set amounts of monetary compensation in the US and Canada. We have all seen it when airline gate staff starts asking for volunteers to give up their seat due to overbooking.

It is not uncommon that airlines sometimes would also ask you to give up your seat even though you’re already on-board for departure. If you happen to be one of those unfortunate passengers industry experts advice that you:

  1. Ask the airline who is the person directing you to leave? That person has to identify himself for the rank and the position he takes.
  2. Ask that person of the exact reason for asking you to leave. Save this information before leaving the flight.

It is a prudent thing do as the information may become valuable if you decide to pursue a civil dispute with the airline. You might be entitled to a significant amount of compensation. Talk to a legal counsel first. Do remember that it is the airline aircraft and it is private property. You do have to follow what you’re told as long as it doesn’t put us at risk.

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Ian Powers is a travel blogger and nature enthusiast. Ian has over 20 years of aviation travel experience.

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