Monday morning, the video of a man being forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight was everywhere. The disturbing footage posted Sunday showed a man being pulled off his flight from Chicago to Louisville.

According to United, the flight was overbooked, and they asked for volunteers to leave the aircraft. The man said he had to get home and refused to voluntarily give up his seat, when law enforcement came to forcefully remove him.

So what are your rights as an airline passenger? Can they really take you off the plane against your will if you are a paying customer because they have overbooked the flight?

The short answer is yes, but the airlines do have to follow certain requirements.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “fly rights” for travelers, first airlines with overbooked flights are required to ask passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation.

Then, if the airline has to ask a passenger to involuntarily give up their seat, the DOT requires the airline to give those passengers a written statement explaining their rights and why the particular traveler was bumped.

Our sister station, KING 5 in Seattle, spoke with a travel expert who said airlines typically bump passengers who pay the lowest fares.

“They would not target frequent fliers, they would not target full fare passengers or first class,” explained Steve Danishek. “They would move down the feeding ladder and generally they take off the four people who paid the least amount for their tickets.”

According to the DOT, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped after purchasing your ticket is to get to the airport early.

Airlines will also bump passengers who were the last to board the plane.

If you are the unlucky one who is unwillingly bumped, the airline is not required to compensate you if it is able to book you another flight within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time.

If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival, the airline must pay you no more than $675.

If the alternative transportation gets you there more than two hours later (four hours internationally) or if the airline doesn’t make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles, to 400 percent of your one-way fare, with a $1350 maximum.

These rules do not apply to charter flights, planes with fewer than 30 passengers, international flights inbound to the U.S. or to people traveling abroad between two foreign cities.

So airlines are allowed to bump unwilling passengers, but the debate Monday centered mostly around what happened on the plane before it left for Louisville. What that the most appropriate way to handle the situation?

The airport officer who dragged the man off was placed on leave Monday, and United Airlines tweeted a statement saying it was an upsetting event and apologizing for having to re-accommodate customers.

He also added that United is reaching out to the passenger to resolve the situation.


Travel expert speaks on passenger rights

U.S. Department of Transportation “Fly Rights”