How to Avoid Getting Yanked Off an Airplane… and Risk Becoming a YouTube Sensation

The flight is overbooked. That much is obvious. What’s not so clear is how United Airlines will handle the situation. They’re trying to convince four people to give up their seats in exchange for a nice chunk of change. But it isn’t working.

So, United selects four passengers at random who won’t be allowed to fly to Louisville on Flight 3411 out of Chicago. One of them refuses to get off the plane and before long, he’s a YouTube sensation. With a bloodied head, he’s dragged off the plane by security personnel. Suddenly United has a PR nightmare on its wings, and the skies aren’t looking so friendly.

Now, you may be one of those people who was outraged at the actions United took recently to forcibly remove Dr. David Dao from their jet. Many people were. Or you may be one of those who believe he had it coming to him after refusing the airline’s orders to leave the plane peacefully and take his $800 compensation check.

There are certain to be arguments about this situation for… well, for at least as long as it takes for the next YouTube controversy to take its place.

Learn Your Rights Before You Fly

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is learn what your personal rights are when you fly. That way you’ll know what the airlines are legally allowed to do and what they are legally obligated to do.

You’ll also learn how to increase the chances that they won’t try to toss you off an overbooked flight.

A little background is in order here.

Airlines overbook flights to make airplanes are as full as possible. They do this to maximize their profits. They assume a percentage of travelers will cancel their reservations and hope that it all evens out. As annoying as this can sometimes be for fliers, it’s perfectly legal.

Sometimes more passengers show up with reservations than the plane has seats. The airline is legally required to ask for volunteers to give up their seats – usually for some kind of compensation – before they actually tell anyone they have to leave the plane.

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), more people volunteer to give up their seats (about 8x more) than people who are told they can’t take a flight.

No Two Airlines Are Alike

Each airline has its own policy for who gets bumped first. People who are least likely to lose their seat on a United flight, for example, are minors and those with disabilities.

Some airlines, such as Delta and United, look at how much passengers paid for their tickets, whether they are frequent fliers, whether they have connecting flights, etc. With Southwest, the last person to board the plane is probably the first to leave if there are not enough seats.

So, what if you’re told to get off an overbooked flight? What are your rights and what should you do?

Actually, if you’re not in a hurry, the compensation can be pretty good. The DOT says that if the airline can get you to your destination on another flight one to two hours after your original flight was scheduled to arrive, they’ll give you 200 percent of the cost of your ticket, up to $675. If they can’t get you there until more than two hours late, you receive 400 percent of your ticket cost, up to $1,350.

How you handle your departure from the plane is up to you. You can go kicking and screaming and become an Internet sensation – and risk the media digging up dirt on you and letting the world know about it, as they did with Dr. Dao – or you can walk off calmly and pocket your check.

Don’t Be One of the Chosen

But if you are in a hurry whenever you fly, the key is to avoid being randomly selected for an early departure from the plane. A couple of ways to enhance your chances of staying in your seat are:

  • Try to fly the same airline as often as possible. If you’re a frequent flier with that airline, the odds are lower that you will be chosen.
  • Get to the airport and get checked in as early as possible. Some airlines decide who gets kicked off overbooked flights based on when they checked in or how soon they boarded the plane.

There’s a good chance your next flight will be overbooked. Hopefully you’ll be able to stay seated when they start thinning the herd.

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