Airline Passengers Have New Weapon To Fight Overbooking

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Free Downloadable Wallet Card Provides Proof of Legal Rights to avoid United Airlines type scenario

Airline passengers faced with an overbooking situation now have a new weapon in their pocket to protect their legal rights; one which, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, might have prevented the recent tragedy on a United Airlines flight.

They may download, for free, a paper containing the official text of their rights under FAA regulations – one designed, when folded, to be the size of a credit card easily carried in a wallet or purse by anyone planning to travel – as an aide to enforcing their rights, and even the rights of other passengers.

Federal rules governing denied boarding compensation – 14 CFR 250.5 and 14 CFR 250.9 – provide that “no one may be denied boarding against his or her will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservation willingly, in exchange for compensation of the airline’s choosing.”   But sometime airlines, in a rush to get a flight off the ground, may skip this important step.

The downloadable card also lists the compensation airlines are required to pay when a passenger is denied boarding because of an “oversold flight.”

Had this information been readily available to passengers on the United flight from which a doctor who had already boarded was dragged from the airplane, they might have loudly urged United personnel to offer at least the minimum amount of denied boarding compensation required by law [$1350.00] – if not more  to induce other passengers to voluntarily give up their seats.

According to witnesses, United offered significantly less before ordering an unwilling passenger to be removed by force to make a seat available for a United flight attendant needed for another flight.

Reportedly, Delta airlines has a very different policy, readily offering to pay the maximum legally specified amount of denied boarding compensation to induce other passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in the case of an overbooked flight, rather than refusing to board a ticketed passenger.

In one case just reported in the Washington Post, this amounted to some $11,000 in denied boarding compensation to one family.

Law professor Banzhaf, who is posting the card on the Internet for downloading free of charge, says that the concept is based on the situation which occurred when he used legal action to persuade the government to issue rules limiting – but not yet banning – smoking on airplanes.

Because these rules were frequently violated, he prepared and distributed tens of thousands of wallet-sized cards containing the text of the smoking rules so that nonsmoking passengers would know their rights, and could present the card to flight personnel if necessary to help insure enforcement.

As a result, the number of complaints of violations of the smoking rules by the major carriers dropped dramatically, although Banzhaf reports that he still had to file official complaints which required delinquent airlines to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

In the recent United Airlines situation, legal action also seems to have been effective.

After the doctor hired two high powered law firms, United finally went from blaming the passenger for his own violent removal from the plane to issuing a formal apology.

United has now seemingly admitted that it acted illegally in asking passengers who has already boarded to give up their seats.  It also promised to begin obeying the law in the future.

Thus, United Continental Holdings Inc Chief Executive Officer Oscar Munoz told ABC News yesterday morning that “we’re not going to put a law enforcement official . . .  to remove a booked, paid, seated passenger . . .   “We can’t do that” – an apparent admission of wrongdoing.

The law, contained in the United’s Contract of Carriage, permits the airline to deal with overbookings, but only by denying boarding to some passengers, not removing those who have already boarded. [Rule 25]

A separate section [Rule 21] does permit it to remove passengers who have already boarded, but only for a limited number of reasons.  It very clearly does not permit the carrier to remove a passenger who has already boarded, simply because it overbooked, or needs to seat additional people, says Banzhaf.

The card can be downloaded, for free and without any obligation, from

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