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A recent incident with United Airlines where a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat after being bumped from a flight has many travelers wondering, what are my rights?

The incident was video recorded on a passenger’s cell phone and has been making the rounds on multiple news and social media sites. According to several reports, the unidentified male passenger had been bumped from his flight because United Airlines had overbooked the flight. The passenger refused to leave his seat and was forcibly removed from the plane. One passenger in one of the viral videos exclaims that the security officer split the removed passenger’s lip. The removed passenger was dragged by his arms, on the floor of the plane aisle.

Reportedly, the reluctant passenger was being bumped so that United Airlines had seats for some of its own employees.

The disturbing video brings to mind what rights an airline actually has to remove a paying customer from a plane. Are there rules regarding overbooking? Can a passenger be forced to leave the plane?

In the short version of the answer, yes, airlines are essentially allowed to refuse flights to any passenger for almost any reason. When buying a ticket, each passenger enters into a “contract of carriage.” This is something most travelers never read, but it can be requested from the airline.

The purchase of a ticket is not a guarantee of a seat on the plane. Airlines are within their rights to overbook the plane and make accommodations at the time of the flight. If there aren’t any no shows for the flight, the airline can enforce “involuntary denied boarding.” The airline is then able to choose passengers at its discretion to deny boarding. Typically it starts with those that paid the lowest fare, but it varies.

The airline must explain its reasoning in writing and provide a different flight to the destination and compensation for the delay. What went wrong in the United Airlines incident is that the airline waited until everyone was boarded (and of course that a passenger was harmed). Airlines usually sort out any issues before boarding to avoid having to remove passengers from a plane.

So how does one protect themselves from “involuntary denied boarding” problems? There are travel insurance coverage types that could cover this type of situation, such as “Trip Interruption for Any Reason”. Comprehensive travel insurance plans will typically offer trip cancellation and interruption (for specific covered reasons) along with medical, baggage, travel delay and missed connection benefits. It is important to compare plans and read the coverage details before buying to know what you will be covered for.

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