As a United Airlines passenger discovered recently, carriers have an extraordinary range of powers including the right to stop you travelling by almost any means
Airline passengers beware: when you buy a ticket, you are not only subjecting yourself to the ordeals of security queues, baggage limits and turbulence. You are also signing a near-40,000-word contract with a carrier that, in the extreme case of a United Airlines passenger on 9 April, could have you hauled off an overbooked aircraft legally as fellow customers and a global web audience look on aghast.
Sundays extraordinary scenes on a Chicago, Illinois, to Louisville, Kentucky, flight unfolded because of two regulations that are standard practice across the industry. The first says a passenger can be barred from a flight if the number of customers with tickets exceeds the number of seats. The second says the captain can have you removed from the plane if you get emotional about it.
Air travel is a thicket of regulations and acronyms that, of course, have your safety at heart. But there can be a thin line between guaranteeing your security and dragging a seemingly innocent passenger off an overbooked aircraft.
Flight overbooking is a phenomenon born of an industry that has struggled historically to make money. Indeed, airlines lost nearly $50bn (40bn) in the past decade due to a combination of the 9/11 attacks, high oil prices and the credit crunch. The sector is making money now, but profits are slender $9.89 per passenger per journey so taking a risk and selling 183 tickets for a 180-seater plane is worth it if three of those passengers fail to turn up and you can pocket their fare expenditure as pure profit.
Airlines have very large fixed costs, so if they dont fill the plane past a certain point they will lose money. They know a certain proportion of these passengers will not show, so they need to overbook to get to break-even or better, says Brian Pearce, the chief economist of the industrys trade body, the International Air Transport Association.
The contract of carriage at United the conditions to which you agree when you buy a ticket comes in at 37,000 words and embraces a range of arcane treaties and rules, from the Montreal and Warsaw conventions to FARs, the USs federal aviation regulations.
According to one legal expert, United was acting within its rights as the furore unfolded when it tried to find seats for four crew who needed to reach a plane they were due to operate in Louisville. But such a calamitous collision of passenger rights and airline prerogative is unlikely. It is a very rare set of circumstances, says Kevin Clarke, a flight-delay specialist at UK law firm Bott & Co. Pointing out that US airlines usually seek, and find, volunteers to come off full flights in exchange for compensation, he adds: It can be a question of who backs down first. In the case of this United flight, the passenger certainly didnt.
Uniteds contract of carriage is a joyless tour of one of the worlds most over-regulated industries, where a minority of colourful terms acts of God; civil commotions is crowded out by tightly worded legalese that will stop you from taking any future journey for granted (at least on United). Under rule five, covering cancellations of reservations, the passenger is warned that all flights are subject to overbooking, which could result in the airline being unable to put the passenger on the flight. In that scenario please bear with this rule 25, on passengers denied boarding compensation, kicks in.
Using language that inadvertently acknowledges the confrontation inherent in the situation, it states that, if no passengers agree voluntarily to give up their seats in exchange for compensation, other passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily. Admittedly, there is recompense of about $1,000 available in this scenario, but it appears that the United passenger in this case said no. This brought him head to head with the far tougher rule, enshrined under the 1963 Tokyo Convention, that says the captains word is law on an airliner and that he or she has the ultimate authority in dealing with any onboard incident.
Rule 21 of Uniteds contract states that removal of a passenger may be necessary if their conduct is deemed to be disorderly, offensive, abusive or violent. It appears that the Louisville-bound passenger refused to give up his seat voluntarily and the crew deemed his behaviour to be out of line, prompting them to call in the security team at Chicago OHare international airport.