In the News

A GOP lawmaker is crafting legislation that would prohibit airlines from bumping passengers off overbooked flights if they have already boarded the plane.

The bill, from Rep. Neal Dunn (R-Fla.), is just the latest congressional response to United Airlines' decision to physically drag a passenger from a flight last week to make room for employees.

The incident, which was recorded by other passengers and stirred an international uproar over customer treatment, has prompted calls for congressional hearings and fueled a push for new traveler safeguards.

Dunn’s measure, the Secure Equity in Airline Transportation (SEAT) Act, would require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to revise federal rules so that airlines cannot involuntarily remove a customer from their seat to make room for another passenger or airline employee. The legislation will also be tailored to ensure that law enforcement can still intervene if a passenger is a threat to the safety of others.

“Passengers should have the peace of mind to know they will not be dragged off a plane once they’re in their seat,” Dunn said in statement. “Americans everywhere were shocked at the treatment of the passenger in Chicago. The SEAT Act will require airlines to sort out over-booking before allowing passengers to board the airplane.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is leading a similar effort across the Capitol, while Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is working on a passenger "bill of rights."

The United incident has put a renewed spotlight on passenger rights and may influence an upcoming debate in Congress over reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.

The practice of overbooking flights and involuntarily bumping passengers is not uncommon or illegal, though problems are typically figured out prior to boarding.

Airlines often overbook flights in order to compensate for “no shows.” When that happens, federal rules require airlines to first offer volunteers compensation in exchange for giving up their seats.

Anyone bumped against their will may be entitled to compensation, with a requirement of up to $1,350, and must be given a written statement detailing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't.

But the DOT, which is reviewing the latest incident to ensure United complied with all consumer protection rules, said it’s ultimately up to the airlines to set their own policies.

Customers agree to these policies whenever they book a ticket and thus agree to an airline’s “contract of carriage,” which may allow a host of other conditions under which a customer can be denied travel.