United Airlines and its “Contract of Carriage”


On April 9th, a video showing police officers forcibly dragging a passenger off a United Airlines flight sparked outrage on social media.  United asked for four volunteers in order to make room for United employees after passengers had been boarded and seated on the flight.  The selected passenger, Dr. David Dao, was a 69 year-old Asian American doctor. He refused to leave the plane since he was seeing patients the following morning, and he was then removed off the plane by force.

Under federal rules, commercial airlines are governed by a contract, referred to as the “Contract of Carriage” or COC.  A COC imposes legal duties upon carriers and protects the legal rights of passengers.  In justifying its actions removing Dr. Dao from the plane, United Airlines cited Rule 25 in its COC which is titled “Denied Boarding Compensation”.  The United COC’s Rule 25 applies when a passenger is denied boarding.  When there is an oversold United Airlines flight that originates in the U.S. or Canada, United can seek volunteers.  If there are not enough volunteers, other passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with United’s boarding priority, but United provides transportation and compensation to the involuntarily denied passengers.  Plainly, this Rule does not seem to apply to the involuntary removal off a plane or to a refusal to transport once a passenger has boarded a plane – in other words, to the circumstances of this case. 

Rule 21 in the United COC, entitled “Refusal of Transport” covers circumstances when a passenger who has already boarded a plane can be removed.  Under Rule 21, United has the right to refuse to transport or remove from the aircraft at any point any passenger for concerns such as unruly behavior, intoxication, inability to fit into one seat, and the like.  But Rule 21 does not seem to discuss overbooking or removal of passengers to satisfy United’s need for additional seats.  It follows that passengers may not be removed from a plane for any reason not listed in Rule 21.  In short, the legal basis under which United Airlines forcibly removed Dr. Dao off their plane is unclear and perhaps even questionable.

The video showing the manner in which Dr. Dao was removed off the plane sparked outrage in China.  Within four days, Dr. Dao’s story was read 910 million times on Weibo, China’s Twitter.  They analyzed and criticized United’s lottery system for selecting volunteers.

Social media and the Internet magnify our voices by making it easier and faster to attract public attention compared to other forms of communication.  The Internet which serves as the backbone of social media is international, and it is easy and cheap to mobilize massive public attention.

Airlines operating between the U.S. and China are very profitable.  In 2016, visitors between the U.S. and China increased 17% compared to 2015.  Many international airlines are attracted to China’s second-tier and third-tier cities.  United Airlines is one of them.  United’s share of the air travel market from China to the U.S. is about 20%, and United cooperates with China Airlines for internal air transportation in China.But this incident may seriously damage its reputation in China.

Dr. Dao settled his case against United, and so we will not know how a court would have interpreted the Rules in United’s Contract of Carriage,as applied to this incident.  It will be interesting to see if, going forward, United decides to modify the terms of its COC.

Author – Jay Kesan