United Airlines Highlights the Lack of Passenger Rights on Commercial Airlines

Photo courtesy of Pixabay


By Kurt Valentine, Staff Writer

A recent incident filmed by passengers onboard a United Airlines flight, which was operated by their regional affiliate Republic Airlines, has caught the public’s attention.[1] The incident occurred when passengers already on the plane had to be removed to accommodate four airline employees that needed to board the flight to Louisville to work a flight the next day.[2] United offered $1,000 dollars to anyone who would voluntarily give up their seat, but no passengers accepted the offer.[3]

Following that offer, United selected four individuals to be involuntarily removed from the flight to accommodate the employees.[4] Three passengers left the plane without incident.[5] Dr. David Dao, the fourth passenger selected to be removed from the plane, refused to leave because he had patients to see in the morning.[6] After refusing to leave the plane, Chicago Department of Aviation security officials were called to remove hi m from the flight.[7]

The disturbing video of the incident shows Dao with a bloodied face being dragged down the aisle of the aircraft.[8] He suffered a broken nose, a concussion, and lost his two front teeth.[9] After the incident, Dao hired Corboy & Demetrio, a Chicago law firm, to represent him. [10] At a press conference held by Thomas Demetrio, Dao’s attorney, Demetrio stated that he will be filing a lawsuit after they complete an investigation.[11] He indicated that they will seek compensation for Dao’s physical, mental, and emotional injuries.[12] Demetrio filed an emergency bill of discovery against the City of Chicago and United.  Both parties will likely be defendants in the impending lawsuit.[13]

There is little doubt that removing a passenger from a flight in such a violent is illegal. As Demetrio stated, “Here’s the law, real simple. If you’re going to eject a passenger under no circumstances can it be done with unreasonable force or violence. That’s the law. ”[14] Although the way Dao was removed from the flight was not legal, is it legal for airlines to involuntarily remove passengers?

There are no rules in place to prevent airlines from removing passengers from flights. It is rare for passengers to be involuntarily denied boarding, but it does happen. In 2016, United involuntarily denied boarding to 3,765 passengers on over booked flights. [15] Although a United spokesperson, Jonathan Guerin, clarified that the plane was not overbooked, the fact still remains that all 70 seats were filled and there were no remaining seats for the four airline employees to board without removing four passengers.[16]

Nevertheless, airlines regularly overbook flights, anticipating that people will not show up; they want every seat to be filled. In those circumstances, it is far more common for passengers to voluntarily accept an offer from the airline to take another flight. There were 62,895 passengers who voluntarily gave up their seat in 2016.[17] Airline companies are free to make their own policies for overbooking flights. Federal Rules only require that companies reimburse passengers that are delayed because of involuntary bumping.

Federal Rules do not require airlines to reimburse passengers if they arrive within one hour of their originally scheduled time.[18] If a passenger arrives one to two hours late or one to four hours late for international flights, companies must pay double the original one-way fare, up to $675.[19] If a passenger arrives more than two hours late or more than four hours late for international flights, companies have to pay quadruple the original one-way fare, up to $1,350.[20] These meager fees do not provide any incentive to prevent involuntary bumping from occurring. The incentive for airlines is customer service and public image.

There is no doubt that circulation of this video has damaged United’s already poor public image. In 2015, Bloomberg ranked United as the 15th most hated company in the U.S..[21] To try and mend their public image after the incident with Dao, United changed its policy for dealing with these situations. United now requires employees to book their flights one hour before departure, and it is reviewing its policies for involuntarily removing passengers from flights.[22]

This incident has also caused Delta and American to change their policies. Delta has increased the amount of money employees can offer customers from $1,350 to $9,950.[23] American has stated that they will never remove a passenger who already boarded to make room for another passenger.[24] Additionally, American confirmed that it does not have a set limit on the amount of compensation an employee can offer a passenger to voluntarily change flights.[25] United would not disclose its compensation limit.[26]

Undoubtedly, this incident will cost United far more than its undisclosed compensation limit. In fact, its market value dropped an estimated $255 million just days after the incident.[27] United will also have to try and fix its public image; people will express their displeasure by taking their business elsewhere. Although there are no rules preventing airlines from overbooking or involuntarily removing passengers from flights, Dao’s incident has already proved to be very costly for United.



[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/04/11/united-ceo-employees-followed-procedures-flier-belligerent/100317166/

[2] Id.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/business/united-flight-passenger-dragged.html?_r=0

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dASATLLvGRM

[9] http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2017/04/13/republic-airlines-is-to-blame-for-united-airlines-incident-former-spirit-airlines-ceo.html

[10]  http://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/travel-guide/a9268685/united-passenger-david-dao-officially-suing-airline/

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/business/united-flight-passenger-dragged.html?_r=0

[16] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/04/11/united-ceo-employees-followed-procedures-flier-belligerent/100317166/

[17] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/10/business/united-flight-passenger-dragged.html?_r=0

[18] http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/10/news/united-overbooking-policy/

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-02-05/america-s-most-loved-and-most-hated-companies

[22] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/dr-gridlock/wp/2017/04/17/after-united-dragging-incident3-major-airlines-change-policies-affecting-bumped-passengers/?utm_term=.400308374aae

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/04/11/united-ceo-employees-followed-procedures-flier-belligerent/100317166/