Passengers beware: when you buy an air ticket, you are signing a 40,000-word contract that, in the extreme case of United Airlines passenger, could have you hauled off an aircraft – legally – as fellow customers and a global web audience look on aghast.
The extraordinary scenes on a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, unfolded because of two regulations that are standard practice across the industry.
The first says a passenger can be barred from a flight if the number of customers with tickets exceeds the number of seats.
The second says the captain can have you removed from the plane if you get emotional about it.
Flight over-booking is a phenomenon born of an industry that has struggled historically to make money.
Airlines lost nearly $US50b in the past decade due to a combination of the 9/11 attacks, high oil prices and the credit crunch.
The sector is making money now, but profits are slender – $9.89 per passenger per journey.
Taking a risk and selling 183 tickets for a 180-seater plane is worth it if three passengers fail to turn up and you can pocket their fare as pure profit.
“Airlines have very large fixed costs, so if they don’t fill the plane past a certain point they will lose money.
“They know a certain proportion of these passengers will not show, so they need to overbook to get to break-even or better,” says Brian Pearce, chief economist of the International Air Transport Association.
Like many airlines, the contract of carriage at United – the conditions to which you agree when you buy a ticket – comes in at 37,000 words and embraces a range of treaties and rules from the Montreal and Warsaw conventions to FARs, the US’s federal aviation regulations.
According to one legal expert, United was within its rights when it tried to find seats for four crew who needed to reach a plane they were due to operate in Louisville.
“It is a very rare set of circumstances,” says Kevin Clarke, a flight-delay specialist at UK law firm Bott & Co.
Pointing out that US airlines usually seek, and find, volunteers to come off full flights in exchange for compensation, he adds: “It can be a question of who backs down first.”
United’s contract of carriage is a joyless tour of one of the world’s most over-regulated industries, where a minority of colourful terms – “acts of God”; “civil commotions” – is crowded out by tightly worded legalese that will stop you from taking any future journey for granted (at least on United).
Speaking to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, a senior pilot at a major airline said: “The legal position is that you are not guaranteed to travel and that you must obey any ‘reasonable commands’ of the crew. So, legally, the airline is right.
“If it were me, I might have sought to promote a different solution [to allow] the crew to travel. I think the reputational damage from the events on Facebook will be significantly worse than a delay – even significant – elsewhere.”
Airline professionals are astonished that United’s overbooking procedures, in a market where overbooking is prevalent, resulted in a passenger being allowed to board before they were subsequently dragged off.
John Strickland, an industry consultant whose career has included managing the overbooking process at a major airline, says carriers now have sophisticated computer systems.
They calibrate whether flights can get away with being overbooked – right down to the specific route, the time of day and whether demand will surge due to holidays or special events.
At the end of its rule 25, United states: “UA shall not be liable for any punitive, consequential or special damages arising out of or in connection with UA’s failure to provide the passenger with confirmed reserved space.”
Best of luck with that one, United.