If you've turned on the news Monday you'll probably have seen United is embroiled in yet another scandal just a few weeks after the whole leggings debacle.
The latest controversy regards an overbooked flight between Chicago and Louisville, which saw one passenger – reportedly a doctor – dragged from the plane by police and Chicago O'Hare Airport security. It happened after United asked for four volunteers to give up their seats so those who had to work the next day could travel.
After nobody volunteered, the doctor was selected at random by computer, but he refused as he also had to work. GoMN has taken a look at the rules surrounding flight overbooking and "involuntary" bumping. You can find our guide to negotiating the best deal when being bumped here.
What is bumping?
Airlines tend to sell more tickets for flights than they have seats, in order to fill any of the empty seats left by no-shows. This is common practice in the industry and it's not illegal.
As Independent Traveler notes, the more popular a route is the more chance there is everyone will turn up for their flights. It's at this point airlines need to ask for volunteers – namely those in less of a rush to get home – to give up their seats.
How should airlines handle voluntary/involuntary bumping?
Department of Transportation rules require airlines to request volunteers to give up their seat on the flight before bumping anyone involuntarily, and says this should happen at the check-in or boarding area.
If you take a look at a passenger's video of the man being removed from the United flight, you'll notice it happens while the man is seated on the plane. Travel industry expert The Points Guy says in this Facebook video United should not have boarded the flight before starting to bump people.
If you're volunteering to miss a flight, the DOT advises you get the airline to confirm you will definitely be on the alternative flight they offer and also confirm they will provide free meals, a hotel room and transfers, if required.
If not enough volunteers come forward, airlines can select people to take a later flight involuntarily.
In order to do this, the DOT says people should be given clear warning that if not enough volunteers come forward, they could be denied boarding, and the amount of compensation they would be due if this happens.
Anyone bumped involuntarily should receive a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who can fly on an oversold flight and who doesn't.
In United's case, passengers are prioritized based on their fare class, itinerary, whether they're frequent flyer program members, and the time they checked in without an advanced seat assignment. Also, people with disabilities and unaccompanied minors will be the last to be involuntarily denied boarding.
What kind of compensation can you expect?
TravelSense notes there is no federally mandated amount of compensation required for voluntary bumping. However, volunteers whose journey will be delayed are almost always able to negotiate compensation with the airline in exchange for taking a later flight – often in the form of cash, a check, or free air vouchers.
Independent Traveler says the closer it gets to a flight leaving, the more lucrative the offer of rewards for giving up your seat, such as free meals, drinks, headsets, first class upgrades or admission to exclusive airport clubs.
There are rules in place, however, for compensation given to people who are involuntarily bumped.
Federal rules say airlines should give passengers 200 percent the cost of their one-way fare if they were to arrive at the destination 1-2 hours later than planned – to a $650 maximum – and 400 percent if it's longer than 2 hours to a $1,350 maximum. United adheres to this policy as explained in its contract of carriage.
How can I avoid being bumped?
There are several steps you can take to minimize the chances of being bumped from a flight.
Lifehacker suggests being a member of the airline's frequent flyer program reduces the chances of being selected, and choosing an off-peak time to fly reduces the chance your plane will be full.
You can also check the small print when booking and refuse the option when buying a ticket or checking in that says you'd be willing to volunteer to take another flight.
Business Insider advises checking in early, particularly if you absolutely have to make the flight. That's because those who arrive later will be prioritized for involuntary bumping. It also suggests boarding as soon as your row is called so the airline doesn't think you're a no-show.
Can I be removed from a plane?
Airline rules tend to favor the airlines over passengers, and as the Points Guy explains, airplane captains and in-flight staff have wide discretion to remove people from planes. Basically, if they want you off, they can take you off.
Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) rules say "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."
According to Fortune, flight crews generally interpret this as "giving them the right to remove any passenger for almost any reason."
And Travel and Leisure notes the flight crew has total jurisdiction to make the decision as to whether you're a disruption to the flight or an inconvenience to other passengers, and can request your removal.