So everyone is familiar with the recent United Airlines incident - with a 69 year old doctor being forcibly and violently removed from his seat. And while I am well versed with airport tannoy announcements about overbooking and the offer of incentives to give up your seat for compensation - ideal for more casual travellers. I was totally not aware that near enough all airlines have written policies allowing them to do this - i.e. throw you off their plane for absolutely any reason - and your buying a ticket means you are accepting those terms. The only exception is JetBlue Airways who guarantee every paying customer a seat as part of their official charter.
So the truth is that by the letter of the law (their) - airlines are perfectly entitled to throw you off a plane if they feel the need to ’accommodate’ absolutely anyone at all - and with due prejudice. In the case of United Airlines, the flight was not as such ’overbooked’ - rather they received a late request from a ’partner’ airline to accommodate 4 of its staff who were needed at the destination airport the following day - all very last minute and unforeseen.
So there was no proper procedure applied in this case, and the full complement of the airplane was already seated and settled onto the plane - usually the seat bumping happens before passengers board. In America, ’seat bumping’ is actually far more common than one would expect. Figures vary between 430,000 and 475,000 seat ’re-allocations’ in the US last year - of those roughly 10% or 40,000+ were ’involuntary’ i.e. enforced with due prejudice.
Exactly how passengers are selected for extraction is a closely guarded secret - which includes factors such as whether luggage has been checked in, how late you arrived at the gate - whether travelling singly or in a larger group, occasion of travel etc. And while EU travellers are protected by various consumer rights - minimum compensation etc., the same protection is not really afforded to passengers in the USA.
United Airlines is only the second worst for seat bumping - being responsible for some 63,000 incidents last year, while Delta Airlines has twice that record at circa 130,000. The advice must therefore be to avoid those carriers.
In terms of consumer rights advocacy - this is all actually quite shocking really, and you cannot imagine a similar occurrence for any other kind of ticketed event. Airlines talk about efficiencies and passing on cost-savings to passengers, but this is just greed and abuse. If all seats are sold - then the airline already has that revenue - if a traveller cancels last minute they forfeit their ticket and the airline keeps their money. So the whole practice of ’overbooking’ is quite unsavoury really. Just imagine if you got thrown out of your seat at the opera house or ballet and someone ushered in in your place. If you have paid for your seat and have followed all the rules - arrived in good time etc. then there is no justification for being removed from your fully paid-for seat.
In terms of basic consumer rights and proper customer service this is in fact quite outrageous and the travel / airlines / airport authority / ombudsman must do something about this fast to restore consumer confidence. It needs to be said also that United Airlines is guilty of charging its customers the most ’extras’ of all the airlines - or petty fines as I call them. As popularised by budget airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet - the need to charge and fine air travellers for every tiny thing has resulted in many airline stewards / staff being reduced to the role of pseudo-traffic wardens - where they are there not so much to provide a smile and service to customers, but more to penalise and fine them for every tiny activity / implied transgression.
There are shining exceptions of course for service - like Emirates and Singapore airlines, yet only JetBlue guarantees that you can never be thrown out of your seat for no good reason.
When consumer protection is this poor, then there is something really rotten at play. It is up to our pressure groups and governments to ensure that these things are changed and improved - in the meantime please feel free to boycott all those airlines guilty of these abuses...