In a video that has been viewed more than a million times and which United Airlines CEO has called "upsetting," a man identifying himself as a doctor was forcibly removed from a United flight on Sunday to make room for an airline employee who needed the seat. The dramatic scene showed guards hauling the passenger out of his seat, and his nose bloodied in the fracas. According to witnesses, the passenger ran back on board minutes later, yelling that he needed to get home to see his patients.
While extreme, the incident merely highlights a basic fact of flight: Flight crews have extraordinary powers, and airlines reserve extraordinary rights.
When you board a flight, you tacitly agree to what's called the "tariff" in Canada and "conditions of carriage" in the United States, legal documents (Air Canada's is 83 pages long, WestJet's about 50) that outline what an airline owes its customers, and how pasengers should be treated.
If it's an American airline, spoiler alert: The answers are "almost nothing" and "like trash."
Canadian airlines are better, at least on the surface – they get more specific about what you are owed and under what circumstances, a result of a voluntary code of conduct called Flight Rights Canada introduced by the federal government in 2009. Even so, the code of conduct is no assurance that you won't show up for your fully paid flight and be told that you do not, in fact, have a seat.
It's what's known in the industry as "overbooking," and it's particular to airlines. According to most tariffs and conditions of carriage, the airline reserves the right to pluck you out of your seat if they've sold it twice, which is perfectly legal, even in Canada.
As upsetting as that United video is, air travel expert William J. McGee says Canadian and American airline passengers might find why that particular passenger was chosen for ejection even more troubling.
"All passengers are not created equal," Mr. McGee says. "And I'm not just talking about first, business, and economy. I'm not even talking about frequent flier mileage."
Everything about how each passenger bought their ticket is embedded in something known as the "passenger name record," says Mr. McGee, a former U.S. airline employee, former editor of Consumer Reports's airline-specific arm, and author of the 2012 airline industry exposé Attention All Passengers. This information includes how much money went into the airline's coffers, as opposed to a travel agency or web hub, how often you book with the airline, and whether you generally book late, or on discounted fares. All this, he says, goes into determining who is asked to leave, and how much effort goes into getting you on another flight promptly. Though he says we'll probably never know, the doctor in the video probably got a pretty good deal on his seat.
"Most of us that grow up in a democracy feel like we're treated the same," McGee says, "but this is more like the Titanic. We don't all get lifeboats."
When contacted by The Globe for comment on the United incident, Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick quoted a decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency that reads, in part, "With respect to the matter of overbooking, the Agency notes that this practice is commonplace among air carriers and, in general, works to the advantage of both air carriers and passengers because the carriers are able to operate at maximum capacity, thus resulting in reduced prices for consumers."
According to the International Air Transport Authority, the global organization to which about three-quarters of all airlines belong, airline profit margins are among the slimmest in the industrial world, with industry averages sometimes slipping as low as 0.5 per cent. So, should anyone blame them for doing everything possible to fill all available seats? As Mr. Fitzpatrick says, "If an aircraft departs with an empty seat, that seat is lost or spoiled and airlines can reduce this by overselling to mitigate the effect of no-shows and this helps keep the costs down for all customers."
Mr. McGee sees it differently. He says transportation companies such as airlines have always had low profit margins, and for good reason. Railroads, ship lines, and even stage coaches ran with razor-thin margins, the result, he says, of the fact that transportation is wedged securely between the categories of private, for-profit corporations, and public utilities. "There's a school that says they're not even designed to make money," he says.
They have gotten much better at it recently, however, largely by managing their load factors – the industry term for the ratio of bums to seats – and it's a trend that Mr. McGee says is directly and un-coincidentally related to a rise in incidents like Sunday's apparent assault.
"In the U.S., what we're seeing now are average load factors that we haven't seen since WWII when U.S. airlines were troop carriers, and that's worldwide. The airlines have got much, much better at filling every seat. Complex computer algorithms allow them to fill seats better than they ever have before. Load factors are the thing that a lot of people don't talk about and don't realize, and they lead to so many other problems: longer boarding processes, fights over overhead bin space, which results in charging for checked bags, and in some cases air rage."
But with higher load factors come higher profit margins, which makes shareholders happy.
What you can do
Airlines often overbook flights to ensure flights are full even if some passengers do not show up. Here are some ways you can minimize the odds of being bumped off a flight.
Air Canada is an industry leader in streaming their economy passengers, letting them pay different fares for the same seat – Tango, Flex, or the higher Latitude fares. You want to be sure it's not you being dragged off the plane? Buy Latitude.
Check in early
You can check in online as much as 24 hours before your flight. Though there is no way to know for sure (ultimately, it's up to the crew), airlines, including Air Canada, have suggested that checking in early increases your chances of keeping your seat.
Pay to reserve your seat
Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick says that having an assigned seat – paying for advanced seat selection – helps the airline and is factored into passenger management decisions, including who gets bumped.
Though the airline occasionally switches to smaller planes when the load factor dictates and therefore needs to reschedule some passengers, WestJet is one of the only airlines in North America to have a specific no-overbooking policy.
Business class is no guarantee of decent treatment
The same computerization that allows us to book online and use our phones to board also lets the airline know exactly how we got into the front of the plane. If you got your ticket on points, if you used an e-upgrade, or even if you got some sort of seat-sale deal on your premium seat, the computer will tell the crew. Depending on how much you actually paid, you could be chosen before someone with a full-fare economy seat.