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OPINION: Passengers have rights, so do airlines

John Hewitt's Opinion Piece for Champion Newspaper

The recent uproar of the passenger being forcefully removed from a United Airlines flight has likely taught many a lesson that we either never knew or thought it would be highly unlikely that the rule would be enforced.

The mice type that we never look at until there is an issue gives an airline the right to bump passengers against their will if flights are overbooked—which is a common practice among all major carriers.

In 2016, Southwest Airlines led U.S. airlines in involuntary bumping with 14,979 according to Department of Transportation (DOT)data. In comparison, Atlanta-based Delta Airlines had 1.238 during the same period.

The top three U.S. airlines in involuntary bumpings are Southwest, American and United respectively.

DOT regulations require that airlines first ask for passengers who are willing to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation. Many people are highly agreeable to being bumped if they are not on a tight schedule as they can often catch the next flight and receive financial compensation.

The legality of removing a ticketed passenger may give the airline the authority to do so but it in no way portrays an environment that most travelers want to be in. From a public relations perspective, United’s debacle has become a nightmare. Memes, jokes and fake commercials for United are flooding social media sites.

There have also been huge financial losses for United. In the first day following the removal of passenger David Dao and the viral sharing of videos of the incident, United’s stock took a $255 million loss.

Granted, Dao could have been a bit more agreeable and not made such a scene, but regardless of how one feels about what Dao did, the airline and security officers could have also handled the situation more professionally.

Since the incident, Dao’s background has been exposed and shows a prior conviction for soliciting gay sex in exchange for prescription drugs and that he is also a professional poker player. Dao, a physician, surrendered his medical license in February 2005 after being convicted of drug-related offenses, according to The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky. Though interesting, Dao’s background has nothing to do with the incident onboard the United plane and should not even be part of the discussion.

There are lessons in all of this that anyone who flies should keep in mind. Always confirm your ticket as quickly as is allowed—typically 24 hours in advance of the flight, arrive at airports at least two hours prior to the scheduled departure time for domestic flights and three hours prior for international flights. And, if given the opportunity and your schedule permits it, accept an offer from the airline if airline representatives ask for volunteers to willingly surrender their seats. Often, agreeable passengers will get financial compensation and a complimentary flight voucher for another flight.

Overbooking by airlines is a standard practice and a reality that all must accept. We can, however, make the best of an unpleasant situation and take advantage of whatever offers are extended to those willing to give up their seats. If we don’t, we could end up being removed from the flight anyway.

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