What went wrong and how could United do better on bumping a passenger?

Update: More careful reading of United’s Contract suggests both that this didn’t fit the definition of an oversold flight, and that even if it did, they only have the power to “deny boarding” to a bumped passenger, not to remove them from an aircraft. If this is true, then this case is simple and much less interesting: UA/Republic should admit fault and compensate those involved and retrain staff. End of that part of the story. Later-update: This might might have involved a special “Must ride” classification put on the flight crew which changes the rule yet again.

I have a follow-on post on misconceptions and realities about these issues.

The viral video of the day is that of police pulling a main from a United Airlines flight. He doesn’t want to go, and they pull him out, and bash his head on the armrest, then drag out his unconscious body. It’s a nightmare for everybody, and the video sends clear chills into every viewer. (Once, after I changed my flight to fly home from Hawai`i with Kathryn, they involuntarily removed her from the plane for a crew member. I spent the flight next to an empty seat as the crew member went to the cockpit jumpseat, and she flew on a later flight that lost an engine. We’ve never flown on that airline again.)

In spite of that, I have some sympathy for both sides, and while clearly things went very wrong here, as even United will eventually admit, the more interesting question for me is “what should airlines do to make this work better”? I do believe that UA clearly didn’t want this to happen, though their policies created a small risk that it would. I am sure they don’t want it to happen again. So if you were the person writing the policy for these situations, what would you do?

The situation:

  • This was UA3411, UA’s 2nd last flight from ORD to Louisville. UA (or rather Republic airlines, a small regional flying under the United Express logo) had 4 flight crew who were needed for an early flight from Louisville and, I presume, had no other option for getting them there. (The next flight was obviously more oversold.) If they don’t get there, and sleep the legally required amount, that flight is canceled and a whole lot of people don’t fly, and a bunch of other flights are affected too. Aviation rules are strict on this.
  • In an unusual situation, the four flight attendants are not expected. It is quite common for flight crew moving to their next job to be on flights and displace paying passengers, but unusual for it to be a surprise, to happen after the passengers have already boarded a full flight.
  • So they ask ( as is required by law) for people to volunteer to get off in exchange for a reward. Unfortunately, all they can offer is a flight Monday afternoon. Nobody wants that, apparently, and the offer gets up to $800 plus hotel. Tickets on this 90 minute flight are only $187, but nobody wants the offer. That’s also unusual.
  • The law then gives the airline another option, involuntary bump. They tell the passengers they will do this if nobody volunteers. They select a pool of “low priority” passengers (those who took super-discount fares, removing elites and the disabled and a few others.) They pick 4 at random.
  • 3 of those selected get off. The law requires they get a compensation of around $800 but in cash, not coupons. One, a doctor, refuses. He tells some people he has to see patients in the morning.
  • They say the plane can’t take off until this passenger leaves. He won’t. They call the airport cops. The airport cops come to his seat to remove him.
  • You can see what happens next on the video. He won’t go. They physically try to pull him out. He screams and clings to the seat. They pull harder. He hits his head on the opposite armrest and is knocked out.
  • They drag his limp form from the plane — you can see that on video.
  • Amazingly, he somehow gets back on the plane, bloodied and a bit confused. He keeps repeating, “I have to get home.” He does not appear to be wearing leggings.

New information reveals that a whole bunch of things went wrong at once, which does not excuse police manhandling a passenger, but helps us understand why it went pear-shaped.

First, understanding overselling — and why the flying public wants it

Most flights these days are oversold, because a lot of people don’t show for their flights. The system of overselling, then calling for volunteers when too many show up makes the planes fly mostly full these days on many routes. It’s a fact of flying and allowed in the law. It makes flight more efficient, perhaps 5-10% more. On competitive routes, that makes tickets cheaper for everybody. It has another benefit to the flying public — more people get to fly on the flight they want, because the airline is willing to sell you a seat on a “full” flight, knowing that 99% of the time you and everybody else will actually get to fly. The alternative is that an empty seat flies, and you wastefully take another flight. Passengers really like more availability, though they don’t directly see how it happens. The reality is many of the flights you see in your web search are technically oversold. If it is really sold out, it’s actually oversold past their limit.

Airlines could elect to not oversell, or not oversell as much, but that comes with a cost. More people denied the flight they want. More expensive tickets. More emissions per passenger. The world doesn’t want that, so the world allows and the law regulates, overselling.

Of course, there is a way to avoid ever being bumped. Pay more for your ticket, or be an elite flyer, as I am. (In fact, as an elite, they actually guarantee me a seat on “really, really sold out” flights 24 hours in advance, which really means they push their oversell percentage by plus-one for elites. If I do this — I never have — they just decide it is cheaper to pay a volunteer to get off the flight than to deny one of their elites the flight they need.)

So the most obvious solution, “Don’t oversell,” comes with a cost I don’t think the airlines or flying public actually want. Consider it this way. A flight you need with 100 seats has had 100 bookings. The airline knows that on average 7 of them won’t show up. Do you want the airline to let you “reserve” on that plane, or tell you “sorry, fly the next day?” Do you want them to only offer you a standby ticket because other people, who paid far less than you for their tickets and who barely fly on their airline, got there first? (And yes, those people who buy late pay a premium.) The airline hates taking off with an empty seat, but you hate being told you can’t get on a flight that ended up with empty seats even more.

Airlines are getting quite good at it. In 2015, only .09% of passengers were bumped, and only .01% involuntarily.

The public wants bumping for flight crew, too!

Turns out, it’s in the public interest that flight crew needed for another flight have higher priority than we do, even to the point of removing us from planes we already boarded. That may not be allowed, but one has to consider the difference between one person removed (voluntarily or not) with compensation and the very large group of people who will have their flight cancelled (sometimes with no compensation) if the flight crew doesn’t get there, properly rested and ready. You don’t want to be either, and utilitarianism is not always the right philosophy, but here the numbers are overwhelming. One guy doesn’t fly or 70 people don’t. So we want a system where that can happen, but smoothly and ideally voluntarily.

Understand involuntary bumping

Usually, the system of offering fat compensation — $800, a hotel and meals for a $180 flight is a pretty good deal — works fine. There are people who actually relish it. I met one guy who says he deliberately tries to get bumped the day before Thanksgiving — when the offers get very high. But nobody was taking it. Most would miss a day of work, which is not an easy thing to do.

The law then allows the airlines to do an involuntary bumping. They have an algorithm that picks people and they are “denied boarding.” The law specifies compensation. In this case 4 times the ticket price and other compensations. And this is cash, not flight coupons. Cash is worth a lot more.

This law is one of the culprits here. The law effectively puts a cap on the offer you will get. The airlines, in a move they thought at first was rational, don’t want to offer you a lot more than the price the law defines for an involuntary bump. Why give a passenger $2,000 when you can do it for $1,000 under the law. Well, one reason is bad PR — which is true in spades here.

The airlines don’t want to do this. About 1 in 1,000 passengers are bumped, and 1 in 10,000 are involuntarily bumped, and has been going down as they get better at working their systems. But it happens.

Without the involuntary rule, the airline might have considered the next solution…

Make better offers for voluntary bumping

This problem would have been defused if they had kept increasing the offer until somebody took it. (Those who took it early will of course be upset, but that’s how it goes.) While there is a practical limit, a volunteer should be found long before it.

They could also consider other things that are not money. Often bump offers come with things like first class upgrades which can be cheap for the airline and very nice to the passenger. They could offer a very coveted thing to some passengers — elite qualification. At the extreme, if they offered 20,000 elite qualification miles or a full-tier bump in elite status, I could see even elite passengers jumping up to volunteer. We don’t usually. We know we will never get involuntarily bumped. We usually have places to go. But we crave that elite status so much that some people fly “mileage runs” — flights to nowhere just to accumulate miles — to keep and increment it. If UA said, “get off this plane and we’ll make you 1K” they would have had a line out the door of volunteers.

To avoid this situation, they should have a better plan of juicy things to offer.

Involuntary removal

Technically, the law says that the airline can deny you boarding. Some are wondering if that gives them the right to do what they did here — take an already boarded passenger off the plane. This is not certain. It does happen all the time.

And let’s face it, the doctor in question is a fool, or wasn’t in a good state. Whether the airline is right or not, once the pilot has ordered you off the plane, in today’s world, barring a major emergency travel need, you are not rational if you don’t get off. If the police come and order you to get off, you get off. You don’t resist. I’m not saying he deserved to get his head bashed. The police handled this badly, and are apparently under disciplinary leave. And United has to know that any time they escalate to using police, this sort of thing, though very rare, can happen. It’s clear their planning did not expect that a passenger would just flat out refuse, even with police there. Air rage is hardly unknown, so this is an error on their part.

I’m not saying we should be sheep. But he should get off and then sue, not fight the police. I don’t actually think he’ll have a lot of legal claim, but we’ll see. The real damage to United will be in PR. Somebody is probably recording a “United breaks heads” song like the “United breaks guitars” song that caused them so much trouble years ago.

In addition, it’s clear we give way too much power to flight crews. People deserve more rights on planes, especially planes on the ground where there is no more safety issue than a parked bus. The airlines overuse their “aviation security” card and they make us live in fear of that power. One part of us cheers on this man who challenged that, but another part thinks he was a bit nuts. He risked criminal charges and even never flying again to stay on that plane. He was told the flight would not take off with him on it. (I’m surprised that didn’t make the other passengers, who were clearly all in a hurry, turn against him.)

Calling the police — or the police at the destination

One factor I don’t think UA or anybody else understood is that calling the police massively increases the risk of things getting out of control. Normally it will be orderly, but in very rare cases, like this one, it can get very bad.

I believe a better solution in this case would be to call the police in Louisville instead, and to tell the passenger that. Say, “We are going to get somebody else to give up their seat. Then we are going to fly. When you get off the plane, police will take you to jail. You should make bail by tomorrow, around the time our alternate flight arrives. You will pay a fat fine.” Have the physical confrontation, if there is to be one, off the plane, at the other airport. But unless he’s really crazy he gets off, and if he doesn’t, when they explain those rules to the next guy, I am 100% sure somebody gets off and the plane flies.

Contractual involuntary bumping

Another alternative would be to make it a condition on deep-discount tickets, and make people click I agree. “You recognize this low fare ticket may mean you will be denied travel on your flight in the event the flight is over capacity. If that happens, first we will call for volunteers, but if not enough appear, you may be chosen at random, and you will not fly but be given $X in flight credit and booking on the next available flight.”

The problem of course is that even though this is voluntary, those who lose that random drawing might still get upset and physically refuse to leave, creating the risk of a confrontation like this.

This problem arose because the law gave airlines the power to involuntarily bump passengers for a fixed fee. But we may still want government involvement on any new regime, such as rules that say, “If the carriage contract includes involuntary bumping rules, they must meet these minimum standards.”

Special case situation may make this more interesting

Update: Some reports have brought in some new factors. Because the rules all talk about “denying boarding” there is debate as to whether they apply to passengers who have already boarded the aircraft. In addition, because the 4 flight crew did not have reservations (they walked up last minute) they were standby passengers, not confirmed passengers, which may make this not be an overbooking situation.

The truth is, if these things are true, they actually make this case much less interesting! That’s because they make it a rare special case, with little bearing on most of our lives. (I say little bearing because almost this exact thing happened to Kathryn and I, where she was pulled from her seat for a deadheading pilot, but I still believe that to be quite rare.)

Overselling is a fact of life in flying, and we want it to be, so that’s interesting. Deadheading crew who need to get somewhere to stop a flight from being cancelled and thus are higher priority than passengers is another everyday reality in flying, so that’s interesting too. If this is just about a rare violation of specific contract terms it is boring.

Of course, one time consuming work-around in this situation might be to deboard the entire plane, then have a re-boarding, where they can “deny boarding.” That also eliminates the need to pull people off planes by force.

Other issues

I must admit, I don’t know why nobody took the $800 offer. That’s a lot for a short flight like this. Perhaps there is more to learn on the situation. It looks like one of those situations where a bunch of unusual things happened at once, screwing up whatever plans they airline has:

  • The deadheading flight attendants show up after the passengers have boarded and say they need to be on the flight. Normally this is planned in advance and so bumping is done in the waiting area.
  • Presumably the last minute travel of the flight crew implies there was no other means to get them there. Normally you want to keep options open.
  • Various other factors make none of the passengers willing to take a pretty decent compensation offer. Usually some would.
  • One of the passengers randomly chosen really feels he needs to take the flight, to the point of refusing. Also pretty unusual, but there is nothing one can do if just in the waiting area.
  • All of this escalates to a stupid decision to call in police on something closer to an economic matter, and that creates an altercation as he physically resists.

Some have suggested United should have found a way to get those flight attendants to Louisville. It’s just a 5 hour drive. I doubt the sleep rules (which apply to FAs as much as pilots) would allow that, but they could have allowed it for passengers. United could have offered passengers a limo ride. While I can’t, some people are OK sleeping in a limo. Or a flight to Cinci. For the same reason, UA probably couldn’t try to rush a private charter for its FAs — even the delay of a couple of hours setting that up might muck up their sleep clock. If they had a procedure in place, they could possibly have had the FAs go to sleep at a Chicago hotel and arranged a private flight early in the morning for them. I doubt they had a procedure for this, because this situation is so rare, and the involuntary bump already gives them a cheaper (but in this case riskier) solution. They might have been able to find some off-duty flight crew who are fully rested somewhere nearby, but I doubt they have a system for this, because they don’t need one. Airlines just don’t keep idle flight crews sitting around small airports.

The harsh reality is that airlines are pushed pretty thin on efficiency. They don’t have a lot of idle planes and flight crew. They have some slack in the system, but it’s a well tuned amount of slack, and sometimes it will be pushed to its limits. It’s overly expensive to have so much slack that you never fail. In fact, that’s not what the public wants.

To top it all off, United is not a very good airline. I say that even though I have had their 100,000 mile status for several years, and in fact earned over 200,000 miles on them last year. But not really on them — most of that came on their Star Alliance partners, because they really do have problems. That’s even though as a 1K they treat me a lot better than that doctor.

Now they have more problems. This is the result of several things going wrong at once, but the reality is that happens.

It may be time to alter the involuntary bump rules or at least raise the limits. And the airlines, after seeing this, will probably just start acting like that happened already, increasing their offers and using involuntary bump — especially of already boarded passengers — as a very last resort.

But it should also be understood that the doctor was being selfish in his own way. While this was possibly not explained to him, if nobody got off that plane, then a whole planeload of people the next morning would have, I presume, faced a cancelled flight. And perhaps the people planning to be on that plane at its destination, though they do have some slop in the system to deal with such problems. If I had seen my flight cancelled because of him, I would not have been so sympathetic to him, even though nobody should have been treated the way police treated him.

(If you want to see upset, on Dec 24 my flight home for Christmas was cancelled because a cascade of problems caused the flight crew to reach their work time limit. Passengers were told it would fly the next day and they would miss Christmas dinner with family. Those were not happy passengers.)

Better planning can also help. Did UA really schedule the flight crew on the last possible flight? Or were they scheduled on an earlier one and something prevented flying on that? Could they put in some systems to fly flight crew at high cost on charter flights in rare cases?

Is this happening in part because everybody has a cameraphone? Perhaps there have been other fights over passenger removal and we just are only starting to see them?

It should be noted that this flight was operated by one of UA’s regional carriers, so the people involved were contractors, though they fly under the UA logo and UA sets the policies. So while UA is responsible, they have levels of control between them and what happened, making more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Beating up people is fowned on in Canada

There is a significant differencee between what one is allowed to do in a contract, and assault uner the Criminal Code. Our police don't handle the insane well, but aren't generally available to beat up passing doctors...

Police action

Yes, the police officers are under investigation. They are never supposed to injure somebody while arresting them, though they still can get away with it if he’s resisting, and this guy seems to be resisting.

As I said, the best plan is not to call the local police, but use the threat of the destination police and a night in jail instead of in a hotel.

Police at destination?

Absolutely no way any sane flight crew, especially the pilots, would have departed with a passenger on board who had already made it clear that he was unwilling to follow their directions. Things just get worse in the air, and are harder to fix up there.

You may be right

And indeed a very unruly passenger is often “turn the plane around” material, even though on a flight this short, it may take longer to get back to ORD than to keep flying.

But in some ways I would view it as a tool. Because if a passenger doesn’t change their mind and comply after that sort of threat, then they are really in a bad way, and then you might consider use of local police, which as I said is the very last resort.

They probably don’t think they can say, “We are involuntarily bumping 4 passengers. However, if any of them object really hard, we’ll keep them on and bump others until we find 4 sheep.”

Instead if they can threaten arrest at the destination, it should make them pause and think. Pull out a book with photos of passengers being arrested as they leave planes and show them. If your goal is to get home sooner, you do not want to get home just to spend the night in jail instead of a Chicago hotel.

Unless you are irrational. But again, the main goal is not to have a physical confrontation on the plane at all, not on the ground, not in the air. In the terminal.

What went strange here was they tried to pull already boarded passengers. I think airlines will reconsider doing that from now on.

just ban involuntrary removal

The simple and just solution is to ban involuntary removal.
The corporation is benefiting from overselling so they should pay the cost when it goes wrong.

Any flight crew order?

So this guy apparently did nothing to warrant being asked t leave the flight. U items contract lists the reasons one can be removed from a flight, which are different than what can get you denied boarding. Their only option is saying he refused a flight crew order to leave the flight. But at the moment that order was given there was no valid reason to order him off the flight. Must anyone obey any order from flight crew, including dangerous or demeaning or illegal orders?

Obey

I have not studied this law but I believe yes, you do have to obey, though presumably you can sue afterwards. Same with police, but possibly even stronger.

Now if it got extreme, as in “We are ordering you off this plane because you are a towelhead” you would certainly win the lawsuit and you probably would not end up being charged for resisting the police who come to remove you. But on a debatable contractual issue? I think the answer is you obey, then sue.

Any order?

Literally any order? So if a crew member tells you to kill someone, or kill yourself, or take your clothes off and dance the Charleston, or orders you to open a door at 42,000 feet, you have to do it or go to jail?

That seems insane. I would think there must be some limit like "any legal order reasonably connected to the safety of the flight or passengers"

Conditions of carriage

So, it's all there in rule 25
https://www.united.com/…/en-US/c…/contract-of-carriage.aspx…
They can kick off anyone they like after offering a relatively small amount of money for volunteers. anyone who has flown on a Sunday evening knows how busy it is...and how hard it is to get a seat on another flight. The limit of 1350 usd is tiny.
And rule 25 says that they can even "deny boarding " i.e. remove, unaccompanied minors who have been put on a non stop plane from a to b if they want....so you put your ten year old on a non stop with someone to pick them up st the other end...grandparents say....and then they decide to remove them off the plane. It is their sole discretion on who to pick...your child or Mr Mega Platinum miles...hmmm...how will it be...
There is strangely no definition of the word "boarding"... boarding to me means getting on the plane. To me, once I am on the plane, I have boarded and therefore not subject to being denied boarding...
Rule 25 needs rewriting. It's not ok
There is probably a similar rule at every other airline. It's rubbish... oh and don't get annoyed when they pick you. Then they call you disruptive etc. Now to be clear I have seen disruptive people inc drunks who did need to be removed. There maybe some other reason to justify why the Dr was removed, but if it was rule 25, then it's not ok
theres a opportunity for an airline to differentiate itsself with a fair set of terms and conditions. One without rule 25 to start with.
https://www.usatoday.com/…/what-rights-do-overbo…/100287338/

Except....

That denying boarding and taking someone off the plane are,logically and semantically, two very different things. I think the fact that they let him board precludes a lot of things under that contract.

What is denial of boarding

This will become an interesting question in this particular case to be sure. But actually, it makes the case much less interesting. If United didn’t precisely follow the terms of particular contracts or regulations in a very rare situation, there is not much to learn or discuss. Punish them, get the regs and policies improved, and we’re done. It does not affect most of us because most of us will never be in a situation like this — even though I have actually been in it, it is rare.

What is interesting is what the right system is for everyday flights that are oversold, as they will be and should be. Overselling is a fact of life. Deadheading flight crew who have top priority on flights is a fact of life in flying too.

Not that it changes any of the analysis, but...

I don't think the guy was unconscious. Being knocked unconscious, especially for any significant duration, should be treated as a medical emergency. This ain't the movies; humans don't suffer head trauma well.

Rather, he's gone limp/passive after getting roughed up in his seat - a fairly common stress response. Notice he's maintaining a fine grip on his cell phone as he's being dragged up the aisle.

I do think that the rules should be changed so that if your ass has hit the seat, the airline should treat that as a transaction boundary and just own up to their fuckup. Otherwise, how far can they go to get an aircrew to a destination - taxi back to the gate, turn around and land again?

Holding phone

I don’t see him holding the phone while dragged but there may be more videos. And yes, it should have been treated as a medical situation. And he does not appear to be being passive.

The answer is probably they need to keep raising the offer. On the other hand, we ticket buyers are the ones who pay for the high offers in the end, so it’s an interesting question if there is a public interest in there being a cap. However, if the need to go super high is super rare, it does not affect our ticket prices enough that we would care.

Left frame, 26 seconds in:

Left frame, 26 seconds in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STJQnu72Nec

Sure, continuously raising the bid or your earlier suggestion of granting premiere/elite status are both good ideas as well. I guess there's always a concern that there will be a game theorists convention or other weakness to coordinated attack.

Good catch

However, he is bleeding in the other videos so it should have been a medical.

It is an interesting question about what best serves the public. Remember that if the airlines have to pay huge compensation, that cost is passed on to the flying public. That’s OK if it’s rare, but not something you can have every day.

I presume your plan is to have a group of coordinated people buy every slot on a small aircraft, then all show up, and then hold out for a ridiculous reward, which they then share? Not impossible. Debatable if it’s legal.

More to the point, once the offer gets up super high, the airline is going to get suspicious. In reality, there would not be a plane of 60 people none of whom will take a $5,000 reward. If I am designing the offer process, it would read, “If the offer gets above $Y with no takers, phone this number for instructions.” You might get away with gaming it once, but not twice.

And of course there is another technique some airlines use. They let you make the offer. They say, “If you are open to volunteering, please give the gate crew your price” and the lowest price wins. If nobody gives a price, that’s fishy. If everybody gives a crazy price that’s also fishy. Now the computer is watching this and flags it. The plane gets a mysterious mechanical fault — two can play at gaming. Everybody’s blacklisted. And for what? With 8% overbook, each person gets a 1/12th share of the reward, which isn’t that exciting. And it may not even be possible to share if it’s coupons or flyer miles.

other creative less-violent escalations/de-escalations

I like the idea of promising arrest-for-trespass (or, perhaps, stowaway?) at the destination – I haven't seen that idea before. It gets the situation out of the aircraft, somewhat away from other passengers, into a place where a lawful arrest can happen under more usual circumstances.

At the destination, they could even "let" (or "require") the non-compliant passenger to exit first. Yes, everyone else has to wait for the troublemaker to be arrested – resulting in shared passenger videos complaining "this is the jerk who refused to get of at our origin, delaying departure for a half hour, then delaying our deplaning by another 20 minutes". Oh, there'd still be arguments over who was in the right, but much of the judging-from-afar mob would then be emoting against his entitlement.

I recognize that the pilots & crew might still be uncomfortable with a passenger who was so stubborn as to refuse their direction, and embrace the idea of a destination arrest. As you note, such a person is sub-rational – having a bad day, or perhaps drunk. But if he's far enough back, and sufficiently screened, it could be manageable. Maybe one part of the negotiation is the trick question, "you either leave the plane, or we have to zip-tie you into your seat for the safety of everyone else. Which do you choose?" The crew could also cancel in-flight service, keep the "remain seated" light on, and hover near him "to keep an eye on the problem" the whole flight – all making it clear his erratic behavior is inconveniencing the whole plane.

Another step between "asking to leave" and "threatening to arrest [here or at destination]" could be for the pilot(s) themselves to come to passenger, in uniform, and make several escalating appeals for compliance. First, the whole I'm responsible-for-the-plane, our-policies-are-necessary, you've-made-me-uncomfortable-with-you-on-the-plane, federal-law-requires-your-compliance, etc. spiel. Coming from new individual, of authority that is separate from (though related to) the corporate authority, without whatever prickliness has already developed between the passenger and staff, could break the logjam. Failing that, next the pilot would explain that the flight will be further delayed, for the XX other passengers, and possibly deplaned entirely, because of the one passenger's non-compliance. At this point, rising social pressure from the other passengers (quite possibly already live-streaming the pilot's appeal) could convince the passenger to reconsider. The passive-aggressive threat to delay indefinitely, or deplane/scrub the flight, might not be credible given all the airline's tight requirements to have crew/equipment/other-customers at other places – but it feeds naturally into the threat-of-arrest at destination – the social/economic case for making that arrest has now been calmly delivered by someone that everyone on the place kind-of-has-to trust-with-their-lives.

A truly daring and perhaps-slightly-evil airline might even preemptively use some "dark social fire" to try to pre-dispose the online mob against the passenger, rather than against the airline. Declare that once the lawful order is refused, a crime has been committed, and the passenger's name & likeness will unavoidably become public in the incident reports. Have the senior flight crew member take a photo of the passenger, and have the corporate social account post the name, photo, and "this passenger who is refusing flight crew and pilot requests to leave the plane is delaying flight X; we have contacted law enforcement and are working to minimize the resulting delay". Someone's gotta be the scapegoat! After this happens once or twice, is well-reported and then memorized for recounting as precedent by crew/pilots, the airline's negotiating position is stronger on future events.

Not needed

The latest things we have learned say that they can’t evict a properly paying passenger from a plane except for safety reasons. (There are a few other reasons but I doubt they get used.) So this exploration is less valuable, as it should never happen. We won’t see any passengers evicted for commercial reasons again, so no need to arrest at destination. And if there is a real safety reason, they are not going to let them fly.

Unless they are able to change their contracts to allow removal for commercial reasons. Then the power to arrest at destination does become the best way to deal with the situation, though it does mean you have a very agitated person on board, who dreads the landing and might get more irrational.

Of course there's "can"

Of course there's "can" according to the letter-of-the-law/contract, and "can" practically.

As you've noted, airlines certainly *have* successfully evicted seated passengers, usually just by saying "you've got to get off, here's what you'll get". For most people, in the absence of crystal-clear law/contract/precedent to the contrary, the owner/operator of a vehicle/space has this sort of local authority. Even if that authority is exercised beyond the letter-of-the-law, the only recourse comes later – you don't get to wrestle it out. And local LEOs, absent specific prior training, are likely to defer to the proprietor and/or other onsite staff.

I do expect the rules, in interpretation or text, to now be further clarified in the airlines' favor – explicitly allowing seated passengers to be "bumped" in the case of operating concerns (like crewing a craft in another city), and maybe even in the case of mistakenly boarding lower-priority-passengers before all higher-priority passengers are assured seats.

To smooth over this formalization, some other way of pre-committing customers to eviction-compliance could come at the same time – the 'contractual involuntary boarding' you mention above. This might involve asking them to pre-declare their "make me leave the aircraft" fee, or printing a specific generous re-accomodation payment on the ticket/boarding-pass. It might even be the final step of an online purchase: "for $3 off your fare, you agree to be bumped & rebooked, even if seated, for $1000; for $6 off, you agree to be bumped & rebooked for $600. [etc]". If a person still, in the moment, refuses to leave, then the other pressures come into play – perhaps including a contractual fine (charged to the same credit card as the original ticket) or ban from future flights.

Problem is

As I note, the problem with contractual (rather than legal) involuntary bump is that you can still have somebody who refuses to leave in spite of having agreed to. Do you call in the police then? Or move on to the next passenger and hope you can collect on the fine?

That's exactly the case

That's exactly the case where the incremental "creative less-violent escalations/de-escalations" we've been discussing would then be applied. And, depending on the clarity of the contractual-obligation, and the management of the other-passenger/online-mob sympathies, such tactics could be widely seen as reasonable, or become effective, without physical-force-on-plane.

Specifically the escalation plan could be:

(1) Uniformed pilot first asks nicely, then more loudly explains delays passenger is creating for all other passengers (including future flights), then announces that presence of non-compliant passenger will change flight for everyone (canceling in-flight beverage service; repositioning staff to keep-an-eye on passenger, etc.).

(2) If customer checked bags & there's time, remove their bags. If passenger is foolish enough to reveal where in overhead bin they've put their carry-on, remove that too. (If passenger interferes, they'll likely have left seat and/or initiated physical assault.)

(3) Provided law & prior contractual agreement provides cover for such a release, staff take photo of passenger & makes public statement of name & photo as cause of delay situation that the airline & airport authorities are trying to address.

(4) If provided in the contract, charge the credit-card-on-record the non-compliance fine.

(5) After the pilot's earlier performance of "we have a contract-violating passenger making us uncomfortable and requiring special procedures" speech, there might be new volunteers to leave! Many people are skittish/superstition, and would see that as their message to GTFO.

(6) Move on to the next passenger who *is* willing to get off (by contractual demand if necessary). Give them an extra unannounced bonus for compliance. (Perhaps, exactly the fine assessed the previous passenger - the airline isn't trying to make money with this fine, just ensure passenger compliance.) Make sure they know the name of the person who failed to comply with their contractual obligation.

(7) Arrange for arrest at time of de-planing, require passenger to get off first at destination, so everyone else sees (films, etc) reason for their inconvenience.

The biggest problem remaining is, as you've mentioned, the flight crew's discomfort with having to fly with such a stubborn, maybe drunk, probably-not-all-right-in-the-head passenger. If they're really concerned, they say they won't take off: a sit-in can't force a flight to take off. Perhaps "cancel" the flight to deplane everyone, then un-cancel to re-board desired passengers only. Of course this means an hour+ extra delay, but it is the airline/crew's ultimate assertion of authority (rather than using local security muscle).

Arrest

You can’t arrest somebody for failing to comply with contractual terms. They have to violate a law which merits arrest. Refusal of flight crew order is such a law.

Of course, one could argue that refusing that order, knowing that at your destination you will be arrested and probably held for longer than the delay you want to avoid, well, that’s pretty irrational and thus the original plan loses value. There gets to be more and more desire to punt the guy now, with cops if need be.

The strange thing in this situation, however, is that the passenger in question had done nothing wrong in any way until ordered to leave the plane. And everybody, correctly, has sympathy for that.

So I am less sure my solution would work. It is a solution aimed at a rational passenger who is being firm about their rights (just incorrectly.) Confrontation on the plane is bad, but confrontation in the air is worse.

What if the doctor had a patient in critical condition?

The doctor claimed he had to get home to his patients. What if that were true to the point of life or death? Perhaps he had a patient who was not well and needed surgery in the morning, that only this particular surgeon could do. Wouldn't he be justified, in a utilitarian sense, to insist that he has to be on the flight? Now we don't know which, if any, of these were true; maybe we will learn during the trial.

Peter

What if

Every passenger really wanted to keep their seat and turned down $800.

The challenge I see is that how do you build a system to prioritize who you bump, one you can execute on very quickly and fairly. You have to prepare it in advance and give it to the gate crew and train them on it. This guy was not needed in surgery. He had patient bookings, and everybody else on the plane had business to do. Are you going to go down the rows of the plane asking each patient why they should not be bumped and score them?

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