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 global outrage over the video of a United Airlines customer being dragged out of his seat screaming and being left injured and bloody at the Philadelphia International Airport.
The actions of the airline’s security were described as “unfathomable,” “barbaric,” “inhumane,” “inexplicable,” and some other unprintable words.
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?”
I am not going to dwell on the overbooking aspect –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, all the drama on board would have been avoided if the “bumping off” or denied boarding as airlines like to call it, took place at the boarding gates.
Also Read: Why airlines bump you off a flight
However, aside from the disturbing footage of the incident, the carrier was within its rights to remove the passenger from the flight.
First thing we need to get out of the way is that 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 regularity framework particularly around passenger handling is very detailed and clear. It caters for all situations and circumstances.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in its guidelines or recommendations to regulatory authorities prohibits any person behaving in an offensive, threatening and or disorderly or disruptive manner on any aircraft – specifically a commercial flight.
Some of these guidelines are adopted as standard operating procedures by airlines, airports and other operators within the airport environment.
As a passenger, by paying for a ticket, you unreservedly agree to be bound by the airlines conditions of carriage which spell out these regulations including conditions under which you can be denied carriage.
While many travelers might not be aware of it, airline passenger handling manuals and ground operations procedures clearly spell out that even refusing to heed to 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 of a flight has sweeping and overwhelming powers on what goes on soon you step into his/her aircraft.
The passenger on United was classified under “disruptive passenger” from the moment he refused to comply with the request to leave the aircraft.
Also Read: IATA Guidance on Unruly Passenger Management
Operating procedures are very clear on the actions to be taken by the airline at every stage when dealing with a disruptive passenger right from check-in, boarding gate, up to the aircraft.
As a general rule, airlines will involve security or police whenever a passenger’s behavior 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 security.
The United Airline incident was not the only flight passenger security issue to keep the internet abuzz this week with disruptive behavior.
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 travel accompanied or unaccompanied by security agents but under restraint.
Procedures even define where such a passenger is to be seated for instance at the rear of the aircraft and not in an exit row. If a person in custody is escorted, where possible, they are to be seated next to the window.
If the Captain is satisfied that even with an escort the passenger might still be disruptive, he may refuse to carry the passenger.
Reality is the airline reserved the right to offload all protesting passengers in this case without recourse.
Passengers need to understand that regardless of the circumstances, airline will strive to place safety first and follow laid down procedure in as much as their actions may seem unpopular.
This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine April 17, 2017 Airlines can throw you off the plane.