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After United incident, police say they're not 'the muscle' for airlines

| Monday, April 10, 2017, 8:45 p.m.
United Airlines planes taxing at San Francisco International Airport in 2011.

Airlines routinely overbook flights, but they rarely encounter as much turbulence as United Airlines did after video surfaced Sunday showing police dragging a man from an overbooked United flight in Chicago.

"I don't know of any examples of overbooking rising to the level where we had to get involved to remove a passenger from a plane," said Bill Palmer, an inspector for the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which patrols Pittsburgh International Airport.

While Palmer wouldn't comment directly on the Chicago incident, he said, "We're definitely not the muscle of the airlines."

Palmer said county police try to avoid getting in the middle of customer disputes and remove passengers from planes only when they are accused of committing a crime or presenting a risk to others.

But in what appears to be a gray area, Palmer said, "It's the airline's plane, so if they ask someone to get off the plane and the passenger does not, that could constitute defiant trespass."

Peter Belobaba, a research scientist in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's aeronautics and astronautics department, said airlines sell more tickets than they have available seats because they assume a small percentage of ticket-buyers won't show up for their flights. No-show rates can hover around 5 percent to 6 percent, he said.

Bijan Vasigh, economics professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, said airlines almost always find ways to come up with a win-win situation that benefits their bottom line and passengers who voluntarily agree to give up their seats.

For example, Vasigh said a passenger who books early and pays $1,500 for an international ticket can get placed on a later flight while collecting a voucher for $500, or more, by volunteering to relinquish his seat. It can be worth it for an airline to buy out such a passenger and instead take one who books at the last minute and pays an airfare of $4,000.

"Both are winners," Vasigh said.

In most cases, such negotiations are handled in gate areas before passengers board. In cases where no volunteers step up, airlines can involuntarily "bump" a passenger from a flight. Such instances are rare.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation data, 40,629 passengers out of 659.7 million passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights on U.S. airlines last year — or 0.62 passengers per 10,000. That was the lowest rate since at least 1997, federal data show.

When an airline demands that a passenger give up a seat, the airline is required to pay compensation of double the passenger's fare, up to $675, if the passenger can be placed on another flight that arrives one to two hours later than the first flight, or four times the ticket price, up to $1,350, for longer delays.

On Sunday, United was trying to make room for four of its employees on an evening flight to Louisville, Ky. A passenger told The Associated Press that United offered $400 and then $800 vouchers and a hotel stay for volunteers to give up their seats. When no one volunteered, a United manager came on the plane and announced that passengers would be chosen at random.

When airline employees named four customers who had to leave the plane, three of them did so. The fourth person refused to move, and police were called, United spokesman Charlie Hobart said.

The passenger told the manager that he was a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning, another passenger told the AP.

Video showed officers grabbing the screaming man from a window seat, pulling him across the armrest and dragging him down the aisle by his arms.

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines' parent company, described the event as "upsetting" and apologized for "having to re-accommodate these customers." He said the airline was conducting a review and reaching out to the passenger to "further address and resolve this situation."

The Associated Press contributed. Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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