A 69-year-old United Airlines passenger was bloodied and knocked unconscious by security, then forcibly dragged off the airplane before takeoff in April, despite the passenger having purchased a valid flight ticket. Videos of the incident taken by fellow passengers received millions of views, creating a public relations disaster for United Airlines.
Yet the incident was caused due to a legal loophole that could be tightened with legislation. That’s what a Senate bill called the TICKETS Act aims to do. Introduced on April 26, a few weeks after the April 9 incident, the bill is labeled S. 947 in the Senate.
To understand the shortcoming in U.S. law, it helps to examine what caused the infamous United incident.
To make space for four United staffers on a Chicago-to-Louisville flight (needed to cover a Louisville flight) four passengers then needed to be bumped to the next available flight to Louisville. United initially offered a $400 voucher, but none of the existing passengers took the deal. Then United doubled the voucher to $800, but still nobody volunteered.
At that point, four passengers were randomly chosen by computer to leave. Three agreed, but passenger David Dao refused, saying that as a Kentucky doctor he had patients to see the next morning and couldn’t be delayed. Security was called in and they knocked him unconscious against an armrest, breaking his nose and bloodying his face.
The U.S. Department of Transportation sets an upper limit of $1,350 per ticket that airlines can offer in such situation. Only at that point where a $1,350 voucher is refused are passengers legally allowed to be involuntarily removed from flights. It’s rare, but the phenomenon does occur: about 46,000 times out of 600 million airlines tickets in 2015. It remains unclear why the highest United voucher offered that day fell several hundred dollars short of that upper limit.
What the bill does
The Transparency, Improvements, and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe (TICKETS) Act contains several provisions aiming to prevent a repeat of the April United Airlines fiasco:
- Any passenger who has purchased a ticket and already boarded the plane could no longer be involuntarily removed.
- The vouchers offered to passengers to entice them to voluntarily leave the plane would no longer be subject to that $1,350 upper limit set by the Transportation Department, allowing the price to increase as necessary until a sufficient number of passengers had volunteered.
- An airlines’ voucher and removal policies would have to be placed prominently at the gate and on all ticket receipts.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the bill is a pretty fly consumer protection measure which will preclude future United-style moments.
“The horrifying incident on United Flight 3411 made clear that we need stronger consumer protections for the flying public,” Senate lead sponsor Hassan said in a press release. “This common-sense legislation will help prevent incidents like that from happening again and help ensure that travelers are treated with greater fairness and respect by the airlines industry.
Yet even President Trump, despite usually siding with corporate interests, supported lifting the cap on an airline voucher price during an interview with the Wall Street Journal, though he did not explicitly mention the TICKETS Act by name.
What opponents say
Opponents argue that allowing the voucher amount to go ever-higher would increase costs on the part of the airline industry — which would likely be passed on to the consumer in the form of higher fares and increased fees.
“If airlines had to keep increasing their offer until that involuntary number were zero, it would raise costs,” wrote travel journalist Gary Leff. “Before endorsing this, realize it redistributes income away from the poorest air travelers to those who can still afford to fly.”
Supporters, on the other hand, estimate that the increases costs would amount to about $23 million per year, a fraction of a percent of the $18 to $20 billion the airlines industry has earned annually in recent years.
Odds of passage
Despite bipartisan condemnation of the United Airlines incident from across the political spectrum, all 10 Senate cosponsors are Democrats. It’s somewhat ironic that Republicans — usually the party more opposed to economic regulation — are more likely to support the existing status quo setting economic conditions and limits on airline vouchers, while many Democrats are supporting this bill which would allow the vouchers to reflect free-market principles of cost adjustment.
Still, many elements of the bill have been folded into the current FAA reauthorization and reform legislation. That bill has been considered likely to pass, and was reported by committee in late June, although its status is uncertain as many Democrats are concerned about certain deregulatory elements.
Currently the TICKETS Act as an individual piece of legislation been referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, where it has not yet received a vote.