Late Sunday evening, a passenger on a United flight was dragged from his seat and down the aisle.
Airlines routinely overbook planes and pay people to take the next flight when necessary. On this particular flight, United needed four seats for employees hitching a ride. They offered $800 in vouchers, but no one on the plane volunteered. Instead, United selected four passengers at random.
When one passenger didn’t comply, United had three men forcibly remove him. And soon after, a video of the incident went viral – giving United another round of bad press.
Despite the outrage expressed on social media, and by a concerned passenger in the video, United’s actions indicated it considered itself in the right. The reason is simple: a half-pound stack of paper called the “contract of carriage.”
Like the terms of service agreements most people scroll through quickly and click “I agree,” the Untied contract of carriage is something you likely agreed to without reading or understanding, something that JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon recently said can be trouble.
Airlines don’t value economy customers as much
Untied Rule 25 – on page 35 if you print it out – the agreement says exactly what happens if the flight is oversold. “If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily,” the language reads. Of course, the man in question that was deplaned was not denied boarding, he was already onboard.
The language continues however, shining light on how these “other Passengers” are chosen. It’s not random, it’s “in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.” The means that if you have a higher fare class, have a complex itinerary, have status (e.g. silver, gold, or platinum), have checked in early, or are a frequent flier, you are less likely to be asked to take the next flight. Even if it’s just a frequent flier card that you never use, it might save you from being forcibly dragged off a plane.
Any kind of priority is better than no priority, when it comes to not getting forcibly removed from a plane.
For passengers looking to take advantage of the budget seats offered, this unspoken ranking and largely unknown class system is important to know. Though companies take great pains to say otherwise, if you paid less, you are not as valued as a customer.