In the News

With modern air travel, you have to take the good with the bad.

In exchange for safe and fast travel from sea to shining sea, we put up with crowded cabins, declining leg-room, flight cancellations, and aggressive security screenings.

We even put up with airline overbooking, and sometimes we’ll take the hotel room and the cash to leave on a later flight, but most of the time, we just want to get to our destination.
Until two weeks ago however, we didn’t realize that the decision to stay aboard or leave an overbooked flight isn’t ultimately up to the passengers.

That’s when footage went viral of a man at Chicago’s O’Hare airport being forcibly removed from his seat on a United flight, dragged down the aisle against his will, bruised and bloody, to make room for a “higher priority” passenger. In a separate incident, the airline threatened to remove a seated passenger unless he yielded his seat to another “higher priority” passenger.

Federal regulations permit “oversales” in the airline industry, under the assumption that people will miss or cancel flights at the last minute. Airlines want to fill every seat on every flight, which will help keep fares down for everyone. It’s an understandable if sometimes frustrating policy.

Current regulations require airlines to minimize their overbookings. If too many passengers show up for a flight, or an airline needs seats to shuttle its “non-revenue” air crew around the nation, regulations require airlines to first ask for volunteers. If too few take the offer, airlines are permitted to deny boarding. Factors that determine whether passengers are chosen for denied boarding include the timing of their check-in, fare paid by the passenger, or their status as a frequent flyer.

These rules apply whether a passenger is still in the terminal or has already boarded and been seated – and that’s where I believe we need to draw a line.

I am introducing the Secure Equity in Airline Transportation Act (SEAT) to make that line clear. The SEAT Act doesn’t create a complex new regulatory regime. It instructs the secretary of Transportation to amend federal regulations, clarifying that an airline may not remove a passenger if the passenger has already boarded the plane. If you are seated on the plane, you should be able to stay on the plane.

This change will require airlines to sort out over-booking before travelers take their seats. Airlines won’t be able to remove a person simply to make room for another passenger, airline employee or otherwise. This will avoid the humiliating, emotional, and sometimes even violent episodes of the kind we saw in Chicago.

The SEAT Act does not prevent airlines from removing passengers for safety or security reasons – with or without the assistance of law enforcement. It also won’t roll back any customer service practices airlines have implemented. I appreciate that the industry has worked proactively to change overbooking policies in the last few weeks.

I believe it is important for us to give the American people certainty that what happened in Chicago won’t happen again. Passengers are asked to put up with a lot by the big companies and the government when it comes to air travel. Let’s do something positive for the average traveler – and let them stay in their seat.