Overbooking Flights, Involuntary Deny Boarding, Contract Carriers, and Other Terms Airline Passengers Don’t Understand

Overbooking flights seems counterintuitive to novice flyers. Most people consider it unthinkable to miss a flight so they can’t fathom why an airline would literally bet that some percentage of passengers will not show for their flights.

The reality is that “things” happen. Passengers will arrive late at the airport, connecting passengers will misconnect from an arriving flight, passengers take an alternate flight (elite passengers often change for free, while casual passengers can do so for a fee), and passengers might score upgrade to another cabin. In other words, a flight’s seating chart can change a lot. But in some cases, more passengers than expected show up. When that happens the airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation. I did this a few times—most memorably around Labor Day weekend some years ago—and scored some travel vouchers. In those cases, we were denied boarding at the gate, well before any passenger boarded the flight.

In a few cases, I have seen passengers ask to deplane after we’ve all boarded. But this is not due to the number of seats being overfilled. It’s due to weight restrictions. Small planes, like those used by Express carriers, can only carry so much weight. If a flight is overweight, passengers will have to deplane—in exchange for compensation—in order to meet the weight restrictions.

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding. That’s what happened this weekend on a United Express flight where a passenger was forcibly removed by airport security. The videos that other passengers captured and shared are hard to watch, and United has twice (kind of) apologized for the violent incident.

The incident has cast blame squarely on United Airlines. Some in China have accused United of racism against the passenger because he was Chinese, while others are threatening a boycott. But it seems like United is not the only party to blame. I see at least three other parties that are responsible for this incident getting out of hand.

  1. The flight was apparently operated by Republic Airlines, a contractor that operates as United Express. I’ve had bad luck with these Express flights, where they are so concerned with on-time departures that they will leave before all the passengers have arrived from incoming flights. Also, not one news story has referred to Republic Airlines nor has its CEO apologized. It’s possible that is because Republic personnel were simply following United’s procedures for denying passengers boarding and calling airport security when a passenger refused to deplane.
  2. The ground crew boarded the flight and then began deplaning passengers. This is puzzling. Gate agents should know that there are more passengers than the aircraft can carry. They should have waited until there were enough volunteers to take another flight before assigning seats to passengers who will have to be denied boarding. The only reason I can imagine for the ground crew doing so is that the flight was overbooked because it was in fact overweight. They didn’t know about the weight situation until everyone boarded the aircraft.
  3. One airport security guard seemingly overstepped his authority. Reports indicate that two airport security officials came onboard and asked that the passenger deplane. The incident became violent after a third security official arrived and physically removed the passenger. I don’t want to characterize law enforcement or security guards in a general way, but there are certainly some that will go too far in “doing their jobs.”

In the public’s mind, however, this incident is all United’s fault. As I’ve said before, airlines and cable companies are among the most publicly hated companies, and no one gives United the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong.

To recover from this, United and other airlines might have to stop overbooking flights and deny boardings. This might seem unthinkable, but at the moment, public opinion needs something to change its mind. Otherwise, imagine the palpable tension and fear the next time you’re waiting to board your flight when an agent announces that a flight is oversold.

The public understands fear much more clearly than they do the logic behind overbooking flights.

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