The Dallas Morning News
Michelle Singletary’s take on the United situation.
As if flying weren’t stressful enough, now some passengers may be worried about being dragged off a flight.
If you fly frequently, as I do, you become accustomed to overbooked flights. It’s standard practice for airlines because history shows some people don’t show up.
When everyone does come to claim a seat, the bargaining and begging begin. I’ve been on flights when people rush to the counter to give up a seat for compensation or a free flight in the future as soon as an overbooking occurs — problem solved.
But this week, all of us were reminded yet again why the fine print matters. And that flying increasingly divides the haves from the have-nots.
Take boarding, for example. There is a pecking order of who gets to board first that at times makes me feel like a peasant with my lowly economy-class ticket — minus a premium seat upgrade with its teeny bit of extra legroom. You stand there as a crew member goes through a long shout-out to the privileged passengers — first class, platinum, gold, diamond, ruby, sapphire, silver or whatever.
Boarding first has become an economic issue. People push and shove to get a better boarding spot even within their groups (Guilty!). You want to board as early as possible to nab an overhead bin because you’re trying to save money by avoiding the fee for checked luggage.
This week we passengers were also reminded that in certain situations we aren’t guaranteed we’ll get the seat we paid for on a particular flight.
When airlines have overbooked and can’t get enough volunteers to give up their seats, they can kick you off involuntarily. Or, given a certain situation, the airline reserves the right to bump you. That’s what happened on United Flight 3411, bound from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, Ky. Passengers were told — after everyone had boarded — that space had to be made for four crew members who needed to make it to another flight to prevent that flight from being canceled.
When no one volunteered despite an offer of $800, United chose four people randomly to remove. One customer refused to budge. That’s when the situation escalated into a hot mess, with police dragging a passenger down the aisle of the plane, to the horror of fellow fliers.
So, folks, in case you didn’t know, here’s what the Department of Transportation rules say about your “fly rights” (from transportation.gov):
If you’re bumped and you can be rebooked to get to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, the airline doesn’t have to offer you anything — although you might still get some perks.
If rebooking gets you there between one and two hours of your original arrival time, you’re entitled to 200 percent of your one-way fare for a maximum of $675. The compensation jumps to 400 percent or a maximum of $1,350 if rebooking delays you more than two hours.
If you’re offered a free ticket for a future flight, you can instead opt for a check. This could be a wise choice, because unless you’re a frequent flier, you might not get a chance to use the ticket voucher if it has the typical 12-month expiration.
United Flight 3411 is also a reminder to be mindful of check-in times and your status. Here’s how that might play out in a bumping situation, according to the Transportation Department.
Last in, first out. You know those check-in times you think are just general guidelines? Not so much when flights are oversold. Airlines may use them to determine the order in which people are bumped. I make it a point to check in for a flight as soon as the window for online check-in is available. I also get to the boarding gate area early.
Cheap goes first. Some airlines may bump people who have paid the lowest fare. And that makes sense if they have to bump people and then compensate them based on the price of their tickets.
Even if United was within its rights, I bet the higher-ups will rethink how its staff handled the situation Sunday night. The day after the incident, United’s stock lost altitude, falling a little more than 1 percent.
At one point, #NewUnited AirlinesMottos was trending on Twitter. My favorite: “Next time my kids refuse to get out of bed, I’m calling United Airlines.”