Here's how airlines like United determine who gets kicked off a flight

The forced removal of a doctor from a United Airlines flight in Chicago, USA, has raised questions over airline practices.

The incident stemmed from the passenger's refusal to leave the flight after being bumped from Flight 3411 to Louisville.

It once again shines the spotlight on the practice of bumping ticketed passengers from flights.

Law enforcement officials were called in to remove the passenger, who was a doctor.

Law enforcement officials were called in to remove the passenger, who was a doctor.

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"What happened with United was exceedingly rare," aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt said.

According to a United spokesperson, the airline needed to bump four passengers from the flight in order to make room for pilots and crew it needed to operate flights later that evening.

Based on United Airlines' Contract of Carriage passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are the least ...

Based on United Airlines' Contract of Carriage passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are the least likely to bumped from a flight.

In many instances, airlines oversell their flights, using algorithm that calculate the likelihood people will cancel, not show up, or run late.

However, there are times where passengers call the airlines' bluff and all show up.

In that case, airlines follow a specific procedure to try and accommodate all passengers.

A United Airlines spokesperson told Business Insider that Flight 3411 was not overbooked — in contradiction to a statement released by the airline Monday morning.

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First, airlines will ask for volunteers, — through email, at check in or even at the gate.

These requests for volunteers will typically come with anything ranging from large sums of cash to hotel rooms and a first class upgrade on a later flight.

According to Harteveldt, there is no federal limit to amount of money an airline can offer its passenger to deplane.

But this doesn't always solve the problem.

When there are simply not enough volunteers, an airline would then involuntarily deny boarding to any remaining passengers.

Statistically speaking, this rarely happens. According to Wichita State University and Embry Riddle University's Airline Quality Rating study, involuntary denied boardings fell to just 0.62 per 10,000 passengers.

Unfortunately for the Louisville-bound passenger, he was selected as one of the passengers to be bumped.

However, his selection wasn't random.

He was chosen based on a series of criteria.

Based on United Airlines' Contract of Carriage (more on that later), passengers with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are the least likely to bumped from a flight.

For everyone else, the contract states that the airline made the decision based a passenger's frequent flyer status, the layout of his or her itinerary (whether the passenger has a connecting flight), the fare class of the ticket, and the time he or she checked into the flight.

This means passengers who are more expensive tickets, higher frequent flyer status, and checked in early are less likely to be bumped.

Delta and American both operate under similar policies as stipulated in their respective contracts of carriage.

Buying a plane ticket isn't so much a straight-forward purchase as it's an agreement to adhere to the airline's contract that spells out the terms of service for the flights.

The agreement is called the Contract of Carriage.

"Customers do agree to a contract of carriage when they purchase a ticket with clear stipulation and it's available on," an airline spokesperson told Business Insider.

Every airline has one and they are usually available on their website. They are long, complex, and filled with legalese. For instance, Delta's contract is 51 pages long.

As with any contract written by a single party in that agreement, it's heavily tilted towards the protection of the airlines' interests.

Do you airlines have the right to throw you off of their planes even if you haven't done anything wrong?

"Yes," Harteveldt said. "Remember, it is their aircraft and their seat - you're just renting it to get from point a to point b."

However, Harteveldt reiterated that what happened on board the Chicago flight was extremely rare.


Compensation varies by how long the passenger will be delayed. If the airline can rebook the passenger and get him to his destination within an hour of his originally scheduled arrival time, no compensation is required.

If the passenger will arrive between one and two hours later than planned - or between one and four hours for an international flight - the airline must pay the passenger twice the amount of the one-way fare to his destination, up to $675.

If the passenger will be delayed more than two hours - or four hours for international flights - the airline must pay him four times the one-way fare, up to $1350.


Airlines will usually bump people flying on the cheapest tickets because the required compensation will be lower. Carriers have other rules, too.

United Airlines says that when deciding who gets bumped, it considers how long it will take for passengers to reach their destination on a later flight, it won't break up a family group, and won't bump minors who are travelling alone.

Airlines are most likely to oversell flights during busy travel periods such as spring break and the summer-vacation season, but bumping can happen any time there is bad weather that causes some flights to be cancelled.


Some savvy travellers see oversold flights as an opportunity - for them. They'll give up their seats if the airline makes a sweet enough offer.

Some check their flight's seating chart ahead of time to see if it's sold out. If you aim to be bumped, sit near the gate agent's desk so you can pounce before other passengers take that offer of travel vouchers, gift cards, and sometimes cash.

If offered a spot on a later flight, make sure it's a confirmed seat. And don't check a bag.​

- this story first appeared on

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