What I want to do is not dwell on what happened with the airlines last week, I think we have discussed that to death but I want to address a glaring problem I saw during all the discussion. The issue is with, what from a purely legal standpoint, is the airline responsible for when situations like this occur. First, lets look at who owns the airline seat. When you pay for a seat on any airline, you are just renting that seat from the airline but ownership of that seat and what can be done with that seat still belongs to the airline. Secondly, lets take a look at overbooking. Even though the situation that happened was technically not an overbooking situation, it is legal for all airlines to overbook by a certain percentage. The Government allows this because on virtually every flight there are no-shows and cancellations.
The problem is happening more and more because the airlines, using their scheduling, are trying to make sure all their flights are full. When a flight is overbooked the first thing they will do is ask for volunteers and they will be offered a future credit with the airline. The amount that an airline will offer will start at a low amount, depending on the number of volunteers they get. In dire situations they can offer up to $1,500. The volunteers will also be accommodated on the airline’s next flight to that destination. If it entails overnighting the airline will be responsible for lodging.
If the volunteering takes place when the flight has been loaded, not surprisingly this actually rarely happens because it is usually taken care of before the airplane is loaded, people will be asked to volunteer their seats and leave the airplane. If more seats are needed than volunteers, those seats will be determined by a lottery, not by where you booked or when you booked as some people think. They will try to not break-up families. Those people will be asked to leave the airplane, will be paid the credit and re-accommodated. Now we get into the area where things went wrong with the situation that just happened. Remember, the seat you are in still belongs to the airline and they can, legally, remove you from the airplane if they need that seat. Where things went wrong on the United flight was how they accomplished that. My advice is, if your are asked to give up your seat and leave the airplane, comply, even if you don’t agree and when you get off the plane go directly to an agent for the airline and find out every detail on how much you will be credited with and how you will be re-accommodated. If you want to argue the situation, now is the time to do that, not while you are sitting on the airplane. So, in summary, everything United Airlines did was, in a strict sense, legal. The way they handled it was questionable and will become the basis of any legal action. This is not to say that any airline cannot go above and beyond what is legal in helping passengers in these situations but it is always good to understand the legality of any situation as a starting point. Once the legal aspect, in any situation, is involved, the airline is already at a disadvantage from a PR standpoint so, it is in the airlines best interest to handle these situations as delicately as possible. This is where United made it’s biggest mistake.
I think all the airlines will revisit this situation and adjust how they handle these things.
I hope this helps people understand these situations from a legal standpoint, not necessarily a moral or just standpoint.