My weekly Frequent Flyer column was done and dusted until the incident with United Airlines happened on Sunday April 9, and my editor requested a comment.
There was outrage over the video of a United Airlines customer being dragged out of his seat screaming and being left injured and bloody at Philadelphia International Airport.
The actions of the airline’s security were described as “unfathomable,” “barbaric,” “inhumane,” “inexplicable,” and some other unprintable words.
According to employees, they called for volunteers to give up four seats on Sunday’s flight from Chicago to Louisville because another flight crew needed the seats.
The employees offered money, but there were no takers. They picked four people at random but a passenger in his late 60s, refused. Law enforcement pulled him out of his seat.
The biggest concern you may have as a passenger is whether the same can happen to you.
Some of the key questions people are asking are, “Why did they sell more seats than they had?” “Wasn’t there a better way to resolve the impasse?”
It’s no secret that airlines overbook flights all the time to maximise on sales in case there are no-shows since a seat flown empty is revenue lost.
As to whether more passengers turned up than could be accommodated on the flight, all the drama on board would have been avoided if the “bumping off” or “denied boarding” took place at the boarding gate.
However, aside from the disturbing footage of the incident, the carrier was within its rights to remove the passenger from the flight.
Airlines, just like hotels, restaurants and clubs reserve the “right of admission.”
If asked to leave your seat on a flight, you should do so.
The regulator framework, particularly around passenger handling, is clear. It caters for all situations and circumstances.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation prohibits by law, any person behaving in an offensive, threatening and or disorderly or disruptive manner from travelling on any aircraft.
As a passenger, by paying for a ticket, you unreservedly agree to be bound by the airline conditions of carriage, which spell out these regulations, including conditions under which you can be denied carriage.
Airline passenger handling manuals and ground operations procedures state that refusing to heed the instructions of ground and security staff is reason enough for offloading and denial of carriage.
In all cases, paid up seat or not, the captain on a flight has sweeping powers over what goes on as soon you step into his/her aircraft.
The passenger on United was classified under “disruptive passenger” when he refused to comply with the request to leave the aircraft.
Operating procedures are very clear on the actions to be taken by the airline at every stage when dealing with a disruptive passenger.
As a general rule, airlines will involve security or police whenever a passenger’s behaviour is beyond the control of airline/ground staff or their actions are outside the law.
In fact, so specific are the rules and procedures that airline staff will invoke the clause “a drunken or disruptive passenger insists on trying to board an aircraft or, having boarded, refuses to leave or is otherwise causing trouble,” to call in security.
Deportee on a KLM flight
The United Airlines incident was not the only flight passenger security issue to keep the Internet abuzz this week.
There was also the case of a deportee on a KLM flight, where other passengers complained about him being transported in cuffs.
According to the enraged passengers, they wanted the deportee or person in custody to be transported unchained and allowed to “travel with dignity.”
Unknown to the protesting passengers, deportees and persons in custody being transported as the result of a judicial decision or state authority order, regardless of whether they are being escorted, must satisfy airline security procedures.
Normally airlines will allow carriage of such passengers if they are accompanied by security agents, or, if unaccompanied, under restraint.
Procedures even define where such a passenger is to be seated (usually at the rear and not in an exit row.) If a person in custody is escorted, where possible, they are to be seated next to the window.
The reality is that the airline reserved the right to offload all protesting passengers in this case without recourse.
Michael Otieno is an aviation consultant based in Nairobi. Twitter: @pmykee143, Email: [email protected]