Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Opinions and a Questions About Airlines, Contracts, Etc.

You've probably heard about the guy who got dragged, kicking and screaming, from a United Airlines plane in Chicago.

Any way you cut it, the whole incident is bad customer service and bad public relations, and United isn't helping itself by defending what happened and using passive voice to distance itself from responsibility. Instead of admitting "we overbooked the plane" (which may not be the case, see below), the company's statement says "the plane was overbooked." Instead of "we apologize for overbooking the flight and having cops assault a paying customer and drag him off the plane," the apology is for "the overbooking situation," as if that situation was an act of God rather than an act of United Airlines.

Regarding "overbooking," that's an industry practice of selling more tickets than there are seats available on the plane. From what I'm seeing, that is not what happened here. What seems to have happened is that plane was fully booked and full of paying customers when United suddenly decided that it wanted to put some employees on board to get them to Louisville. That's not "overbooking," it's just deciding to steal back some seats they sold to customers and use those seats for their own purposes.

One instrument United is using in defense of ordering an assault on one of its paying customers is its "Contract of Carriage." One note and one question:

The note: The contract section on how oversold flights are handled refers to denial of boarding. But this customer was not denied boarding. He presented his ticket, he boarded the flight, he took his seat ... and then he was ordered off the plane.

The question: Is a contract provision pre-announcing a clearly fraudulent practice binding in any case? I'm interested in reader opinions. Here's mine:

The Contract of Carriage includes the following definition, which is subsequently used in the above-linked section: "Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats."

If there are 100 seats on a plane and United sells 101 "valid confirmed Tickets," they're defrauding at least one passenger. You bought the ticket. It's "valid." It's "confirmed." Oh, sorry, that seat you bought? So sorry, we sold it to someone else, too.

The practice of "overbooking" is designed to protect and/or boost airline profits based on the likelihood that some people will cancel at the last minute or just not show up for the flight, leaving seats empty and available.

The proper way to handle that is not to sell 101 "valid" and "confirmed" tickets for a flight with 100 seats. It's to sell 100 "valid" and "confirmed" tickets and then offer "standby" tickets -- if a seat is empty due to a cancellation or no-show, the "standby" ticket holder gets on the plane. If there are no empty seats, not.

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