By now, you’ve probably heard the story of one ill-fated passenger on United Express Flight 3411. Dr. David Dao, a Kentucky physician on his way home, was unceremoniously booted from the overbooked flight. Dr. Dao was one of four passengers randomly selected for removal after the offer of a hotel stay and $800 in flight vouchers failed to entice anyone to voluntarily surrender their seat. He was the only passenger to resist, stating he had patient appointments at 8 a.m. the next day.
He was also the only passenger to be forcibly removed by Chicago Department of Aviation officers, incurring a major concussion, broken nose, knocked-out teeth, significant concussion, sinus injuries and what one can only assume was massive psychological damage.
United displayed poor judgement, and the officers used unnecessary force. Together they spotlighted the shameful way travelers can be treated, as anyone who viewed the video footage will conclude. But what people might not know is that airlines are within their rights to boot passengers on overbooked flights. And how often do overbooked flights happen? More often than you might think. In fact, overbooking is one of the keys to profit…and not just for airlines.
Why Businesses Overbook
If you’ve ever been bumped from an overbooked flight, you know how inconvenient this business practice is. But every airline does it.
“Airlines overbook because people don’t show up for flights and they don’t want to go with empty seats,” George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, told CNN.
Carriers are within their rights to remove passengers who don’t comply with flight crew orders, according to federal law. If that sounds outrageous, well, every passenger consents to this policy when they buy their tickets (read the fine print on those legal waivers). And each year, more than 40,000 people get booted from overbooked planes. That’s about 6 in every 100,000 (not very good odds). But your odds get a lot better if you’re a frequent flyer or a business class passenger. That’s right…money talks, and economy seats walk.
According to Rule 25(A)2(b) of United’s Contract of Carriage, these are the boarding priority guidelines:
“The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.”
It sounds like terrible policy from a human perspective (and it is), but businesses prioritize economy over empathy and are all about maximizing profits. Airlines aren’t the industry to overbook. Hotels routinely overbook, too, resulting in “walking” the poor chump who rolls in after midnight ready to pass out in the room he reserved by credit card more than six months ago.
And if you’ve ever waited hours to see the doctor who scheduled you for a 9 a.m. checkup? Yep, doctors overbook, too.
When Having a Right Goes Wrong
United Airlines had the right to move passengers around. However, they seriously bungled this situation. Professional decorum won’t allow me to use the words I’d like to describe the act of dragging a bloodied, unconscious, paying customer out on his back. However, Dr. David Dao’s personal injury attorney is filing an emergency bill of discovery against United in order to preserve every bit of evidence.
“We all have had enough … angst for flying as it is. Don’t treat the people who helped make you be the corporate entity you are like Dr. Dao was treated,” attorney Thomas Demetrio said at a press conference.
Demetrio has not yet officially filed the lawsuit, but it is likely that he will sue for intentional torts, excessive use of force and negligence. The 69-year-old doctor may receive a hefty settlement, possibly millions.
Ultimately, United Airlines was technically within their rights to ask Dr. Dao to deplane. Should they have raised the compensation from $800 to the maximum of of $1,375 to entice people to volunteer for a later flight? Probably. Did the authorities use excessive force when dealing with Dr. Dao? In my opinion, beyond a doubt.
What to Do in This Situation?
First, stay calm. Bad things happen when tempers flare. If the flight attendant is being rude, record the incident or ask somebody to record it to document what happened.
Trust your gut on what to do. However, in any case where law enforcement is involved, follow their orders. If the police tell you to get off the plane, then get off the plane. Ultimately, passengers on a plane aren’t the boss–the captain is–so when the crew tells you to do something, do it. You might not get home on time, but at least you won’t get hurt.
And if you do get hurt? That’s when you call Shamieh Law.
Shamieh Law offers a free case evaluation to anyone wrongfully injured in Texas or Louisiana, regardless of their ability to pay.