CHICAGO - United's contract with its passengers specifies that it is allowed to involuntarily remove passengers from an overbooked flight. But a former travel agent and practicing attorney questions whether that contract was enforceable in the case of a passenger who was dragged off his flight when he refused to give up his seat.
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Fewer than 1 percent of all ticketed passengers are denied boarding each year, and even fewer are denied boarding involuntarily. But if it happens to you, those types of numbers don't matter.
Randy Warren worked for two decades as a travel agent, and the now-practicing attorney watched video of Monday's incident with much interest.
"They badly trampled this man's rights," he said.
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Joe Ridout, spokesperson for Consumer Action in San Francisco, also saw the video and was flabbergasted.
"It was horrifying," he said.
Both agree what happened was not acceptable. The man removed from the flight was a doctor who said he needed to get on the flight to see patients. United said it needed the seats for its own crew trying to get to their assignments.
"They put their business interest ahead of the traveling public," Warren said. "The fact is that it wasn't that the doctor was taken off because the grandma needed the seat. The doctor was taken off because United needed the seat to meet a financial obligation."
Warren said United lost its right to remove the passenger once he boarded, and he's predicting a drawn-out lawsuit.
"If the airline overbooked the flight and they need to inconvenience someone, it has to be someone who's not on the plane, not someone who's already been given a seat," he said.
United first offered its passengers $400 to voluntarily take another flight, and when there were no takers, it upped the offer to $800.
United's contract with passengers calls for travelers to be chosen for involuntarily being bumped based on a number of criteria, including fare class, status in the frequent flyer program and when the passenger boarded.
"Maybe it's time to revisit the whole concept of involuntary bumping," Ridout said. "Maybe the airline should be compelled to offer compensation that is commensurate with the inconvenience."