WASHINGTON — As if flying weren't stressful enough, now some passengers may be worried about being dragged off a flight.
If you fly frequently, as I do, you become accustomed to overbooked flights. It's a standard practice for airlines because history shows some people don't show up for whatever reason.
When everyone does come to claim a seat, the bargaining and begging begin. I've been on flights when people rush to the counter to give up a seat for compensation or a free flight in the future as soon as an overbooking situation occurs — problem solved.
But recently, all of us were reminded yet again why the fine print matters. And that flying increasingly divides the haves from the have-nots.
Take boarding for example. There is a pecking order of who gets to board first that at times makes me feel like a peasant with my lowly, economy class ticket — minus a premium seat upgrade with its teeny extra leg room. You stand there as a crew member goes through a long shout-out to the privileged passengers — First Class, platinum, gold, diamond, ruby, sapphire, silver or whatever.
Boarding first has become an economic issue. People push and shove to get a better boarding spot even within their groups (guilty!). You want to board as early as possible to nab an overhead bin, because you're trying to save money by avoiding the add-on fee for checked luggage.
We passengers were also recently reminded that in certain situations we aren't guaranteed the seat we paid for on a particular flight.
When airlines have overbooked and can't get enough volunteers to give up their seats, they can kick you off involuntarily. Or, given a certain situation, the airline reserves the right to bump you. That's what happened on United 3411, a flight originating from Chicago O'Hare on the way to Louisville, Kentucky. Passengers were told — after everyone had boarded — that space had to be made for four crew members who needed to make it to another flight to prevent that flight from being canceled.
When no one volunteered, despite an offer of $800, United chose four people randomly to de-board. One customer refused to budge. That's when the situation escalated into a hot mess, with police dragging a passenger down the aisle of the plane to the horror of fellow fliers.
So, folks, in case you didn't know, here's what the Department of Transportation rules say about your "fly rights" (from transportation.gov):
• If you're bumped, and you can be rebooked to get to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, the airline doesn't have to offer you anything — although you might still get some perks.
• If rebooking gets you in between one and two hours of your original arrival time, you're entitled to get 200 percent of your one-way fare for a maximum of $675. The compensation jumps to 400 percent or a maximum of $1,350 if rebooking delays you by more than two hours.
• If you're offered a free ticket for a future flight, you can instead opt for a check. This could be a wise choice, because unless you're a frequent flier, you might not get a chance to use the ticket voucher if it has the typical 12-month expiration date.
United Flight 3411 is also a reminder to be mindful of check-in times and your status. Here's how that might play out in a bumping situation, according to DOT.
• Last in, first out. You know those check-in times you think are just general guidelines? Not so much when flights are oversold. Airlines may use them to determine the order in which people are bumped. I make it a point to check in for a flight as soon as the window for online check-in is available. I also get to the boarding gate area early.Comment on this story
• Cheap goes first. Some airlines may bump people who've paid the lowest fare. And that makes sense if they have to bump people and then compensate them based on the price of their tickets.
On reflection, even if United was within its rights, I bet the higher-ups will be rethinking how its staff handled the recent situation. The day after the incident on Flight 3411, United's stock lost some altitude. About two hours before the stock market closed, its stock had fallen by about 3 percent.
At one point #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos was trending on Twitter. My favorite: "Next time my kids refuse to get out of bed, I'm calling United Airlines."
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