United dragging incident fuels push for passenger rights

Greg Nash

The disturbing image of a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight is putting a spotlight on the few rights that people have while flying. 

Under the law, airlines are allowed to overbook flights and force unwilling customers to give up their seats — and there is little passengers can do to stop them. 

Proponents of establishing new consumer protections hope that the United incident, which sparked nationwide outrage and calls for congressional hearings, will create momentum for their efforts. 

“I certainly hope this is the wake-up call that Congress needs to get moving on consumer protections and will help uncover an ugly pattern of customer abuses that are so apparent to anybody who flies on a regular basis,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.

United faced criticism this week after videos emerged on Twitter showing security officers forcibly removing a man from his seat and dragging the bloodied passenger down the aisle by his wrists.

The airline has since apologized and promised to not use airport law enforcement in such situations anymore. 

United said they had to make room on the flight for airline employees who needed to be transferred to another destination. After no one volunteered to be bumped, passengers were selected at random. 

The man who was forcibly removed refused to give up his seat because he said he was a doctor who needed to reach his destination to treat patients. 

The use of excessive force does not appear to be in accordance with airport security protocols. But the practice of overselling flights and involuntarily bumping passengers is not uncommon or illegal, though it is typically figured out prior to boarding. 

Airlines often overbook flights in order to compensate for “no shows.” When that happens, federal rules require airlines to first offer volunteers compensation in exchange for giving up their seats. 

Anyone bumped against their will may be entitled to compensation, with a requirement of up to $1,350, and must be given a written statement detailing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.

But the Department of Transportation (DOT), which is reviewing the latest incident to ensure United complied with all consumer protection rules, said it’s ultimately up to the airlines to set their own policies.

“While it is legal for airlines to involuntary bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine it’s own fair boarding priorities,” a DOT spokesperson said in a statement. 

Some air carriers, for example, will bump the last customers who checked in. Others may base the decision on the price a passenger paid for the flight.

Customers agree to these policies whenever they book a ticket and thus agree to an airline’s “contract of carriage,” which may allow a host of other conditions under which a customer can be denied boarding.

“A lot of passengers don’t know what they’re agreeing to,” Greenberg said. 

But bumping is rare. Air carriers bumped 0.62 customers per every 10,000 people last year, which is the lowest annual rate in over 20 years, according to the DOT.

Still, the United incident has stirred widespread, bipartisan criticism that could influence an upcoming debate over the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Top senators on the Science, Commerce and Transportation Committee are demanding answers from United and the Chicago Department of Aviation. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — a longtime crusader for consumer rights — is leading a similar request. 

In the House, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) wants the Trump administration and potentially Congress to further review the passenger’s treatment; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is calling for a hearing on the matter; and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he was troubled by the “poorly managed and avoidable” event.

Overbooking and bumping aren’t the only potentially frustrating issues facing travelers. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has been working on legislation since last Congress to create a new “bill of rights” for airline passengers. 

The last major effort, which was implemented under the Obama administration, requires airlines to deplane passengers after a domestic flight has been sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. Airlines must also ensure adequate food and water is given to customers if an aircraft has been delayed on the tarmac for two hours.

Blumenthal’s update may address cancellation fees, baggage fees, seat sizes, electronic cigarette use, evacuation procedures and airline competition.

The National Consumers League hopes the U.S. will eventually follow the lead of the European Union, where airports are plastered with large signs informing passengers of their rights. 

“The disturbing video of United Airlines having police literally pull a passenger off a flight is just the latest example of a major U.S. airline disrespecting passengers and denying them their basic rights. Passengers need and deserve legal protections that prohibit this type of egregious treatment,” Blumenthal said in a statement to The Hill. 

“I am working to establish a Passengers Bill of Rights that will make clear incidents like the shocking one the world witnessed on United Flight 3411 will not be tolerated.” 

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) thinks the federal regulation allowing airlines to overbook flights should be suspended.

And Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is crafting new legislation that would prohibit airlines from forcibly removing passengers from flights to make room for other customers after they have already boarded the plane. 

“It is outrageous that airlines can bodily remove passengers after boarding rather than providing appropriate incentives to encourage volunteers,” Van Hollen said in a letter to colleagues urging support for his bill. 

But the U.S. Travel Association says the incremental strategy is only “nibbling around the edges” of the underlying problem, which the group argues is a lack of airline competition.

The four major airlines now account for about 80 percent of air traffic, which the U.S. Travel Association says has given airline companies little incentive to improve customer service.

The organization would prefer to see an approach that examines anti-trust immunity and encourages airport infrastructure improvements that foster more competition. 

“What’s gotten us into this jam has been that the fox is in charge of the hen house,” said Jonathan Grella, the group’s executive vice president of public affairs. “Public outrage is coming to a head now. … We have an opportunity for reform.” 

But the airline industry, which has major lobbying clout and strong allies on Capitol Hill, may have a compelling argument against prohibiting overbooking: that ticket prices could go up without that power.

Airlines have successfully fought against what they call overly burdensome regulations that could have negative effects on travelers. Efforts to include certain consumer protections in last year’s FAA bill went nowhere in Congress. 

“We’ve gone head to head with [airlines] on a number of issues,” Grella said. “They play hard ball. Taking them on is not an easy undertaking.”

Tags Charles Schumer Richard Blumenthal

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