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Did United Airlines Violate Its Own Contract By Forcing That Passenger Off The Plane?


In the wake of United Airlines’ decision to fully board a flight then force passengers to disembark to make room for four United employees, the Internet has been awash in both excoriations and defenses of the airline’s behavior. Many have bashed the Chicago-based carrier for asking law enforcement to forcibly remove a ticketed passenger from the plane to make room for employees who needed to be in Louisville the next day for work. Others have said the man should’ve just done what the airline told him to do, or that United was fully within its rights to have the man removed from the flight.

A review of United’s Contract of Carriage, its official contract with ticketed passengers, however, suggests that United may have actually violated its own rules and terms in how it handled the situation on Monday. You can read through that contract yourself here. The specific section of the United contract relevant to Monday’s kerfuffle is “Rule 25 Denied Boarding Compensation.” Here is the relevant language from that section:

A. Denied Boarding (U.S.A./Canadian Flight Origin) – When there is an Oversold UA flight that originates in the U.S.A. or Canada, the following provisions apply:

1. Request for Volunteers

a. UA will request Passengers who are willing to relinquish their confirmed reserved space in exchange for compensation in an amount determined by UA (including but not limited to check or an electronic travel certificate). The travel certificate will be valid only for travel on UA or designated Codeshare partners for one year from the date of issue and will have no refund value. If a Passenger is asked to volunteer, UA will not later deny boarding to that Passenger involuntarily unless that Passenger was informed at the time he was asked to volunteer that there was a possibility of being denied boarding involuntarily and of the amount of compensation to which he/she would have been entitled in that event. The request for volunteers and the selection of such person to be denied space will be in a manner determined solely by UA.

2. Boarding Priorities – If a flight is Oversold, no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority:

a. Passengers who are Qualified Individuals with Disabilities, unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 years, or minors between the ages of 5 to 15 years who use the unaccompanied minor service, will be the last to be involuntarily denied boarding if it is determined by UA that such denial would constitute a hardship.

b. 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.

A couple of terms in there will end up being really important. The first is “denied boarding/deny boarding.” The second is “oversold flight.” Section 25(A)(2)(b) listing criteria for targeting passengers for involuntary denied boarding will also be important.

But before we dive into whether United violated its own rules and policies in having a ticketed passenger dragged off a flight, let us first review some key facts. First, nobody has disputed that the man in question was a valid, ticketed passenger. Second, he boarded the plane as instructed. Third, the plane was fully boarded before United sought volunteers to give up their seats so four United employees could fly to Louisville from Chicago. In fact, United’s own CEO confirmed in a note to employees that the flight was “fully boarded” before gate agents for that particular flight were told that four passengers needed to be removed to make room for United employees.

“On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded,” United CEO Oscar Munoz wrote, “United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.”

“We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions,” Munoz wrote.

That’s where the wheels start to come off the United bus. To understand why, you need only have a rudimentary understanding of the English language. In statement one, Munoz notes that the flight was fully boarded. In statement two, Munoz then declares that the man was only removed because United employees were following their “involuntary denial of boarding process.” How, exactly, does one follow a denial of boarding process after a flight is “fully boarded?”

Granted, I am only a common non-lawyer, non-airline employee, but I don’t understand how one can be denied boarding after a flight is fully boarded. It seems to me like the involuntary denial of boarding ship has probably sailed at that point, and the operation has instead advanced to the “forced disembarkation” stage of airline crisis management.

But that’s not all. United’s ticket contract also lists criteria for selecting passengers to whom boarding should be involuntarily denied:

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.

Were any of these criteria used on Monday’s flight? Not according to any news that has been reported thus far. Instead, individuals who were targeted for removal were randomly selected by the airline, even though “random selection” is not a criterion included in United’s contract terms. Judging by the clear language of United’s terms and policies, it appears as though the carrier actually violated its own rules in its attempt to remove a ticketed passenger from the plane to make room for a handful of United employees.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume United followed its denial of boarding procedures to the letter. Does that get the airline off the hook? Not really.

That’s because United says its denial of boarding provisions only apply in the event of an “oversold flight.” Here’s how United’s contract defines that term:

Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.

To date, the airline has not offered any evidence that the flight was actually oversold, rather than just being too full for four extra employees to hitch a last-second ride (employees which, according to United’s contract, do not qualify as “passengers holding valid confirmed tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time”). (UPDATE: United now admits that the flight was not oversold.)

Based on the facts reported by various news outlets and relayed by United’s own chief executive, it certainly appears as though United actually ignored its own denial of boarding processes and contract terms when it randomly targeted a valid ticket holder for removal after he and the entire plane had already boarded in accordance with the airline’s own instructions.

United’s only potential saving grace in this entire debacle comes via “Rule 21 Refusal of Transport” in the airline’s Contract of Carriage. We’ll focus on paragraphs A and H(1), H(2), and H(4), as they’re most relevant to what has been reported about the situation:

UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons:

A. Breach of Contract of Carriage – Failure by Passenger to comply with the Rules of the Contract of Carriage.

H. Safety – Whenever refusal or removal of a Passenger may be necessary for the safety of such Passenger or other Passengers or members of the crew including, but not limited to:

1. Passengers whose conduct is disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent;
2. Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives;
4. Passengers who, through and as a result of their conduct, cause a disturbance such that the captain or member of the cockpit crew must leave the cockpit in order to attend to the disturbance;

Given what we’ve analyzed so far, it appears that United, rather than the passenger in question, failed to comply with the airline’s own rules and contract terms, so paragraph A in Rule 21 doesn’t seem to apply. Judging by the public statements of United officials following the brouhaha, it appears that the airline is going to hang its hat on paragraph H, which lists the reasons United may refuse to fly a ticketed passenger to his or her destination.

This particular rule is written so loosely as to justify nearly any removal for any reason as long as a crew member declares that a passenger is being disorderly, or if a pilot declares that a disturbance required him to leave the cockpit. But I’m not even sure that gets United off the hook, especially if the “disturbance” was caused by United’s deliberate and now admitted violation of its own processes and contract terms. Can United really defend itself by saying it had to have the man dragged off the plane by law enforcement because he caused a disturbance only after United breached its own contract?

Thus far, United seems committed to making this situation as painful for itself as possible. Instead of apologizing for its actions and trying to make things right, United’s corporate PR team is instead hiding behind bogus excuses and attempted legalese that doesn’t even comport with United’s own rules, policies, and contract terms.

One of the maxims of crisis communications pros is that when you’re in a hole, you should stop digging. It’s long past time for someone to reaccommodate United’s shovel, even if it has to be dragged out of United’s Chicago headquarters by police.