[Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare, and columnist for Investopedia. The views expressed by columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Investopedia.]

Maybe the only winner to emerge from the incredible story of a passenger who was physically dragged off a United flight over the weekend are university public relations departments; they can use this video for years to come in a PR 101 course called What Not to Do. 

The story in a nutshell: United overbooked a Chicago to Louisville flight on Sunday, and when they didn’t get enough volunteers to deplane, told one already-seated man he’d have to go. He refused, police were called, and the passenger was dragged out of his seat and down the aisle on his back. Fellow passengers captured the crazy scene on video, showing the man’s bleeding lip and slipping glasses. The Department of Transportation is now "reviewing" the incident.

It was United's second starring role in the involuntary bad PR circus in less than two weeks, the previous snafu having to do with not letting two girls wear leggings on a plane. (See The Biggest Airline PR Disasters).

Does United Have the Right to Kick People Off Because of Overbooking?

Yes. Without getting into the dragging aspect, United and all other U.S. airlines do indeed have to right to bump passengers in overbooking situations but it’s called “involuntary denied boarding” and to my mind, it should be carried out before anyone enters an aircraft (barring a last-minute emergency situation). Say there’s a need to bump people; first the airline must ask for volunteers, and enough folks are usually enticed to deplane by vouchers good toward future flights. Before you decide to accept a voluntary-bumping voucher, be sure to work out specifics on when you’ll get to your destination.

When there aren’t enough volunteers, bumping comes into play and so does compensation. Most bumpees will get something, per Department of Transportation rules as stated in its Consumer Guide to Air Travel: 

  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that arrives within one hour of the original landing time, there is no compensation.
  • If it arrives from one to two hours of the original time, the airline pays you an amount equal to 200% of the one-way fare to your final destination that day, a maximum of $675.
  • If it arrives more than two hours later (or four hours for international flights), you get 400% of the one-way fare, with a $1,350 maximum.
  • All those who are involuntarily bumped will be given a written copy of their rights.

Note: Airlines may offer involuntarily bumped compensation as a voucher, but the Department of Transportation says you can request cash or check, and that is the way to go.

Did This Have to Happen?

No. Without being in the loop on this particular situation, I can say airlines in general can do a much better job of avoiding overbooked flights. Some, like JetBlue, simply don’t overbook, but others do and some do so knowing overbooking can mean increased revenue. Example: Say an airline sells all its tickets by a week before take-off, but then demand for this flight suddenly heats up. Because fares typically rise sharply in the seven-days-before-departure-window, an airline might keep selling these now more expensive seats, figuring there will be some no-shows and last-minute ticket-changers and cancellations.

So bumping happens, but airlines could certainly avoid horrible scenes by raising the amounts of the ‘thank you for leaving voluntarily’ vouchers. It would probably still be a lot cheaper than any potential "involuntary denied boarding" payoffs, and there would be no bad taste (or video) left behind.

If this was a true last-second emergency (a bit suspect), and they had to remove some passengers involuntarily, United should have offered more on the plane – and promised that $1,350 cash would be provided to those who had to leave the plane – to diffuse the situation.

How to Avoid Being Bumped

This can be a bit difficult; as the Department of Transportation notes airlines are allowed to set their own "boarding priorities" meaning the order in which they will bump people. For example, United states that its most-likely-to-be-bumped categories may be based on “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.” In this situation, United reportedly said it used a computer to choose the four passengers who were bumped and it's unclear what criteria were used to decide which names went into the hat.

OK, most of us don’t want to pay business class ticket prices, but one could make the effort to choose a seat before getting to the airport and joining an airline miles club. Maybe you’ll never amass enough miles for an awards flight but membership is free and who knows? It might keep you off the bump-list. And off of viral video, too.






Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.