Disturbing videos posted to social media show security personnel violently dragging a man off a United Airlines plane after the company needed seats for four crew members. Another video posted later shows the passenger with blood dripping down his face, repeatedly saying “just kill me” and “I want to go home.”
His crime: The airline wanted his seat for crew members on a full flight.
Though an overbooked flight is not the passenger's fault, airlines are permitted to overbook flights.
Airlines overbook to maximize profits per flight. In an attempt to earn more revenue, they can sell more tickets to passengers even if the seats are limited.
Some amount of no-show passengers are expected instead of every ticket buyer showing up for the flight. And if someone doesn’t show up for the flight, the empty seat costs the airline money.
Airlines depend on complex algorithms to reach the perfect overbooking balance. The forecasting systems analyze a series of complex inputs such as historical data of no-show rates, refundable tickets sold, passengers coming from connecting flight and passenger’s individual data.
But these forecasts are not always spot on. So in such a scenario, the airlines turn to bargaining and ask people to voluntarily leave the aircraft.
The airline is supposed to compensate the voluntary passenger for the inconvenience. The airline is legally required to inform the passenger about the compensation in detail. It also owes the passenger another flight and if the passenger doesn’t like the arrangement, they have a right to ask for an "involuntary refund."
If an airline overbooks a flight and removes passengers involuntarily then it has to give the passenger "a written statement" of their rights, however they don’t owe passengers anything financially if taking another route, or flight gets the passenger to their destination within the hour of the first flight's arrival time.
In 2011, the Department of Transportation decreed that involuntarily bumped passengers have the right to up to four times the value of their tickets, maxed at $1,350.
United may be facing a lot of heat right now, but it is probably not going to stop any of the airlines from overbooking in the future.