This week, a disturbing video circulated showing a bloodied United Airlines passenger being dragged off his overbooked flight. The passenger in question had already boarded the aircraft and was apparently one of four passengers that were randomly selected to be bumped. United said that it needed to “reaccommodate” the passengers in order to seat their own employees traveling to Louisville, Kentucky. But after a repeatedly botched non-apology from United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, the incident spiraled into a full-blown PR crisis.
In the midst of this news, many frequent fliers are asking: Can you really get bumped from a flight after you’ve boarded the aircraft? Sure, we’re all familiar with the scenario of being at the gate and hearing that the flight is overbooked. Usually, the airline will offer passengers a voucher if they agree to be rebooked on a later flight. Savvy travelers know that this is a good why to fly cheaply, especially if you hold out a bit until the airline has upped its monetary offer.
According to The New York Times, in 2016, 62,895 United passengers voluntarily gave up their seats. But the paper also reported that in the same year, another 3,765 passengers were “involuntarily denied boarding.”
This phrase, involuntarily denied boarding, is key to understanding Sunday night’s incident. Technically, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are signing a legal contract, in which the airline has a fair amount of leeway. And under federal regulations, as long as a plane is still at the gate, it is legal to bump passengers from a flight. So next time you fly (or complain to your local representative), be aware.
This story originally appeared on Vogue.
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