Column: Broken contracts harm passengers’ rights


Terry Tan | Senior Staff Illustrator

By Christian Snyder, Columnist

Everyone has their price — even the guy on his way to a funeral, a retired United Airlines pilot  said in the face of the airline’s recent viral controversy.

But United simply couldn’t figure that price out last week. The airline chose four passengers, at random, to involuntarily bump from a United Airlines flight April 9. Three took United’s payoff at a value of up to $1,000 in compensation. However, Dr. David Dao, from Kentucky, refused to leave the plane, citing he had patients to see the next morning. Armed security officers violently removed Dao to make space for four commuting crewmembers.

A video of the incident shows him screaming when officers yank him off his seat, his head striking a armrest and his body going limp while they dragged him down the aisle.

This incident was violent and caught on tape, but passengers are bumped from flights all the time. In 2016, U.S. based airlines involuntarily bumped 40,000 passengers from their flight.

In the recent United controversy, a lack of seats on the plane wasn’t the issue in question. United’s decision to remove Dao, from a plane it stated was not overbooked, was injurious to the rights he secured when he signed the airline’s contract of carriage — the legal document outlining passenger and airline rights. What’s more, United’s decision to eject Dao after he boarded the plane, rather than denying him boarding, placed United entirely in the wrong, regardless of whether or not it required extra seats.

At the legal root of the issue is contract law — law that manages deals between people. When two individuals enter a contract, they are making promises to each other that the law will enforce. People might assume the airline’s contractual obligation is to transport the passenger, but it’s more subtle than that. Airlines agree to provide the customer with a ticket, not transportation, and that ticket is subject to further restrictions — such as the size of checked baggage or requirements for dogs flying with owners to be “odorless.”

The restrictions in question here are listed in the contract’s section called, “Denied Boarding Compensation.” The section states passengers can be denied boarding on an overbooked flight against their will only in the event no volunteers are found when asked. United’s boarding priority determines which passengers are subject to be denied boarding, taking into account fare class, frequent flyer membership status, itinerary and passenger arrival time.

But United spokesperson Jonathan Guerin stated that the flight in question was not overbooked in an interview with USA Today April 12. So regardless of the nuances to the situation United should have foreseen the necessity of extra seats and planned accordingly. By denying transport to a passenger on a plane that was not overbooked, United already broke their contract with Dao.

Lawyers are tricky though — there’s probably some argument to be made that even though the flight in question didn’t have more ticket sales than seats, the fact that United needed the seats for crewmembers could legally consider the flight overbooked beyond efficient capacity.

Regardless, Dao was still forcibly removed from his seat on the plane. United’s contractual protections reserve for them the ability to deny boarding to passengers, but nowhere in the contract does it mention forcibly removing passengers. Since Dao already boarded the plane, United had absolutely no contractual right to remove him. Dao should not only sue for the security officers’ aggressive use of force but also for United being entirely in the wrong for ejecting him.

In light of this horrible situation, there’s a solution. United wasn’t able to find willing volunteers because they limited their payout maximum to roughly $1,000. Each airline sets this cap on its own — comparatively, Delta’s maximum was $2,000 before this scandal. Every passenger has a price for which they’d be willing to re-accommodate — here, United’s offer was obviously beneath the price that the market of passengers aboard demanded for compensation. Since the market of passengers on the plane demanded more in compensation, United should have offered more.

Since the incident, three major airlines have promised to change their ways. American will now guarantee that once passengers have boarded the plane, they will not be removed from their seats. Delta has committed to offering a significant amount more, up to nearly $10,000, as incentive for volunteers. And United will now require employees book their seats at least an hour before takeoff.

But these reactionary changes by a few airlines will do little to prevent the industry from behaving this way toward the thousands of passengers involuntarily bumped from flights every year. If we are to allow airlines to take advantage of this capitalist system, we should allow consumers to do the same and demand higher compensation.

Above all, we must be fair. Airline travel is stressful enough as it is, and it’ll certainly be more enjoyable for all if there’s no looming threat of a violent encounter over the airline’s failure to plan.

Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.

Write to him at [email protected].