Here’s the Legal Language United Airlines Uses to Justify Booting Customers

You can indirectly thank Ralph Nader

The horrible image of a passenger being dragged from a United Airlines flight has its origins in another dispute over an overbooked flight — 45 years ago. One of the passengers on that fated 1972 flight was Ralph Nader, a consumer lawyer who would go on to become a failed presidential candidate.

Nader sued Allegheny Airlines for not telling him it had intentionally overbooked his flight, and won at the Supreme Court, which ruled that airlines commit fraud and violate federal aviation law when they secretly overbook planes and boot passengers without warning.

Today, airlines still quietly overbook flights — but thanks to Nader v. Allegheny Airlines, they use one-sided legal language to do it. United’s language says that when flights are overbooked, the airline can ask volunteers to give up their seats in exchange or vouchers or money. It warns that that any “request for volunteers and the selection of such person to be denied space will be in a manner determined solely by UA.”

Of course, that language doesn’t call for aviation security personnel to drag passengers from the plane, as happened Sunday. United says it is investigating what went wrong.

The language airlines have used since Nader’s Supreme Court victory is posted at airline counters, on the backs of paper tickets, on e-tickets, and in an online “Contract of Carriage” online. The airlines also started asking for “volunteers” to give up their reservations in exchange for airline vouchers or money.

United has various technical terms for blocking passengers, including “denied boarding involuntarily,” and “denied booking.” Passengers who are “denied boarding involuntarily” are entitled to compensation.

But in the case of the United flight Sunday, the overbooking was not caused by booking too many paying customers.

After the passengers boarded, the Washington Post reported, an airline supervisor abruptly announced, “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight.  . . .  This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.” A young couple voluntarily exited, and when no one else volunteered, United called in three police officers to eject the male passenger — and they eventually dragged him away.

Nader advises airline passengers to go to small-claims court with their ticketing claims against airlines.

“I read a lot of consumer books, and almost all of them completely ignore small claims court,” Nader told the New York Times.  “Few people know how simple the forms are and how accommodating the judges are. A lot of them are even open at night.”

In 2011, Nader threatened U.S. Airways (the former Allegheny Airlines) in small claims court for charging him $300 in cancellation fees and not refunding him for two tickets after he canceled them.  The airlines responded by refunding Nader the $300 cancellation fees and gave him a full refund for his tickets, for a total of  $2,760.