The Transom, Ben Domenech, April 12, 2017

And did they do it by violating their own contract?  “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:

“RULE 25 DENIED BOARDING COMPENSATION 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.”