When you buy a plane ticket you’re renting a seat aboard a particular flight from one airport to another, right? Wrong. You’re buying a chance to use a seat aboard a flight, not a guarantee. Buying a planet ticket is like playing a lottery, albeit with much better odds:
In plain language under Rule 25—on page 35 if you print it out—the agreement says exactly what happens if the flight is oversold. “If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily,” the language reads. (Of course, the deplaned man was not denied boarding, he was already boarded.)
I’ve been on many overbooked flights. Since I don’t fly very often the fact that I’ve been on many overbooked flights illustrates how prevalent the practice of overbooking is. This mostly works because whenever a flight is overbooked the poor schmuck working at the front desk will offer people who volunteer to take a later flight some kind of compensation and they usually get enough volunteers. However, I’ve often wondered what would happen if they didn’t get enough volunteers. Fortunately, United answered the question:
CHICAGO, IL — A man aboard a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville was forcibly lifted from his seat, dragged down the aisle and removed from the plane as horrified passengers protested and recorded the episode on their smartphones Sunday night at O’Hare International Airport.
The man was among four passengers randomly selected on the full flight to give up their seats for United Airlines employees who needed to be in Louisville by Monday, according to witnesses. Flight 3411 was overbooked, according to the airline.
If a flight is overbooked and the airliner doesn’t get enough volunteers then a few cops are sent aboard to rough up a passenger and forcefully remove them. As an aside, I’ll note that the officers had no problem roughing up and removing that paying passenger. But I’ll leave the moral judgement of that fact for you to make.
I would go so far as to accuse United, and every other airline, of fraud since they’re misrepresenting their product. With the exception of the 3,000 pages of legalese hidden in some dark recess of their websites, every airline strongly implies that when you buy a flight ticket you’re reserving a seat aboard a selected flight. Some airlines even allow you to select a seat. However, you’re not reserving a seat, you’re buying a chance at getting a seat, which is not what is being advertised. What makes matters worse is that the State is willing to subsidize this fraudulent practice by providing the muscle to deal with any customers who are unhappy about getting ripped off.
While other airlines also sell lottery tickets instead of flight tickets, they haven’t been caught sending police aboard when somebody loses. Because of that, I would recommend playing the lottery with another airliner. At least then if you lose you might not get roughed up.