Was United’s Passenger Removal Even Legal?


I’m sure some people are tired of hearing about this same incident over and over again. However, I believe that this is an important story, something that cannot be allowed to die as a victim of the fast-paced news cycle. It is a story highlighting extreme problems in the US aviation industry, and we must make it a catalyst for change. That being said, on with the article…

A question I’ve heard raised a lot recently was whether or not United’s actions were legal. I will not discuss whether the police’s actions were legal (they certainly were not, as throwing an unarmed, non-threatening man’s face into an armrest is assault, plain and simple), but whether United, in demanding that several passengers leave the plane to make room for a crew, is legal or not. In my belief, it is not.

Let’s explain something here. It is entirely legal to deny passengers boarding, either voluntarily (in which passengers volunteer to be booked on a later flight and are given some kind of compensation) or involuntarily (in which passengers are kept from boarding the aircraft against their will, but are still compensated) for reasons of overselling of flights. However, one cannot deny a passenger transport (taking them off an aircraft or refusing to allow them to board for other reasons) outside of a specific set of reasons. Per United’s contract of carriage (a legally binding document), some of these reasons are:

  • Breach of rules in Contract of Carriage
  • Security directives or other government orders issued against the passenger
  • Refusal to submit to searches (4th Amendment, anyone? This one is completely ridiculous, but unrelated to the situation)
  • Refusal to provide identity verification when it is requested
  • Appropriate fare not paid
  • Lack of necessary documents for international travel, or illegal or invalid travel documents
  • Disorderly or violent conduct, assault against or refusal to obey the orders of United crew member

Of course, there are plenty of others on the list (which can be found here), but needing to remove a passenger to make room for crew is not one of them. Thusly, United violated its own contract of carriage, a legally binding document, in removing this passenger. He did nothing that legally should have lead to his removal: he did not assault anyone, he did not disobey crew member instructions, he never violated United’s Contract of Carriage. The only party that violated United’s Contract of Carriage was United.

United’s actions are indefensible, morally and legally. The passenger did nothing that legally warrants a denial of transport, per United’s own guidelines — United needed the passenger’s seat, and decided to take it by illegal means. What United did had no legal basis, plain and simple.


About the Author

I'm Alex, and I am an enthusiast in all things travel: miles and points, airplanes, airline products, and more. On this blog, you can read my take on recent travel/ commercial aviation news, trip reports, ramblings, rants, and opinions, and I'll even share some of my aviation photography from time to time. Hope you enjoy reading, and happy travels!

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