The public-relations nightmare for United Airlines continued on Tuesday in the aftermath of a Sunday incident in which a man was dragged off a plane in Chicago for refusing to give up his seat. The situation arose from a combination of overbooking and the airline requesting that four passengers relinquish their seats to United employees needing to travel to Louisville, Kentucky.
When there were no volunteers for $800 in compensation, United chose four people by random computer selection. One of the four, a 70-year-old doctor, refused to leave the aircraft and was removed from his seat by airport police. He was dragged down the aisle with blood on his face to the horror of other passengers, several of whom recorded the incident and uploaded it to social media.
The man, who has not been identified, got away from police in the terminal and reboarded the aircraft. Since he was bleeding, the aircraft was deboarded for an hour while it was cleaned up. The plane eventually left, two hours behind schedule.
The incident unleashed a social media firestorm and a significant drop in stock value. Twitter, Facebook and numerous comment sections filled up with stories and legal speculation about what would happen next. The most common question was “Can airlines do this?” It seems the answer is “yes.”
Overbooking is a common tactic practiced by airlines to ensure full flights. While it inconveniences less than one percent of passengers per year, it can make people frustrated and angry. If an airline asks for volunteers to give up seats, it must offer compensation at four times the cost of the ticket, up to $1,350. By rule, the situation should be settled before the plane is boarded, which United clearly did not do in the Chicago incident.
Another concern is the man who was dragged was injured during the incident. The airport police said the injury occurred when the man resisted during the removal and hit his head on an armrest. Several passengers reported that the man was not only bleeding but also repeating the same phrase over and over, leading them to believe he might have sustained a concussion. His medical status is not currently known.
On Monday evening, the airport police released a statement saying it had placed one of the officers involved on administrative leave while it continued to investigate the incident. United Airlines issued an apology that seemed insincere to many, which led to further negative commentary on social media.
As shocking as the Chicago event was, passengers have very little power to fight such practices under law. Consumer rights have been undercut to the point where class-action lawsuits are nearly impossible to win, and arbitration almost never favors the plaintiff. The only realistic option is to encourage legislators to fight overbooking practices, which are not consumer friendly.