What airlines legally can and can't do to their passengers


After Sundays’s shocking incident on a United Airlines flight, where a 69-year-old man was beaten and dragged off a flight that was overbooked, many people are asking questions about passenger rights.

It may seem hard to believe, but it is in fact legal for an airline to remove a fare-paying passenger from a flight, even after they have checked in and boarded the plane.

In fact, the practice of overbooking is common, with airlines overselling seats on the assumption that there’ll always be a small number of no-shows.

US airlines booted off 40,000 passengers in total last year, and this is not even counting those who volunteered to give up their seats.

United Airlines alone bumped 3,765 people from flights, although it is by no means the worst offender – Southwest kicked off nearly 15,000, according to US government figures.

When more passengers show up than there are seats available, an airline’s first recourse is to ask for volunteers to take a later flight – usually in exchange for money or travel vouchers.

But, like what happened on the United flight, sometimes there are simply no volunteers. And in these cases, the airline can deny travel – or “bump” a passenger against their will.

The good news is that if you are turfed out, you are entitled to hefty compensation. If you end up arriving between one and four hours later than scheduled at your destination, the airline must pay you twice the cost of the one-way fare. If you are delayed by more than four hours, the airline must pay four times the cost.

In fact, some savvy passengers actively pursue overbooked flights in order to keep travel costs down. If you are looking to get bumped you can check your flight’s seating chart on the day to see if it’s sold out, and hover near the gate agent’s desk ready to pounce on the first offer of a later flight deal.

Usually, the habit of overbooking works well for everyone. As travel journalist Simon Calder wrote in the Independent:

Normally everyone ends up happy: all the people who really need to travel are able to do so, and people like me with a bit of flexibility end up with more than we paid for the ticket in the first place.

However, this would be a small comfort to the doctor thrown off at Chicago O’Hare airport on Sunday.

For those who wish to avoid being bumped there is unfortunately not much you can do. If you are travelling in cheaper seats you are more likely to be kicked off than someone travelling in First Class as the required compensation would be lower. Similarly, flying in peak season – during the summer and school holidays – also carries a greater risk of a flight being overbooked.

Most carriers have rules that they won’t break up a family group travelling together, or bump a child under 18 who is travelling alone.

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