“A bakery doesn’t want to have a lot of extra pastries at the end of the day they have to throw out,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, an industry publication. “To an airline, an empty seat is basically the same thing as stale bread. It’s something they can never sell again.”
But involuntarily bumping passengers is rare. In 2016, United involuntarily denied boarding to 3,765 of its more than 86 million passengers on oversold flights, according to the Transportation Department. An additional 62,895 people voluntarily gave up their seats.
The event on Sunday was the second social media stir for United in two weeks. In March, two girls were barred from a flight because they were wearing leggings, which the company said violated its dress code for a benefit for United employees and their dependents. Critics called the policy sexist and overbearing.
On Sunday, Mr. Bridges said that when he arrived at the gate about 20 minutes before boarding, United had announced that the flight was overbooked; the airline was offering $400 vouchers to anyone who would give up their seat, Mr. Bridges said.
As the passengers boarded the plane, “there was no indication anything was wrong,” Mr. Bridges said.
An airline employee came on board and said United needed four people to get off, Mr. Bridges said, adding that the airline had by then increased its incentive to an $800 voucher. The airline later said that it offered up to $1,000 in compensation.
Mr. Hobart, the United spokesman, confirmed that United sought passengers willing to give up their seats with compensation but that none stepped forward.
Another United employee told passengers that the plane would not leave until four people got off, Mr. Bridges said. The employee specified that the airline had four United employees who needed to get to Louisville, he said.
Four passengers were selected to be bumped, and three left without incident, Mr. Hobart said.
Mr. Hobart would not say whether the bumped passengers were chosen by a computer, an employee or some combination of the two. But factors can include how long a customer would have to stay at the airport before being rebooked, he said, and the airline looks to avoid separating families or leaving unaccompanied minors.
A United employee first approached a couple who appeared to be in their mid-20s, Mr. Bridges said, and the pair begrudgingly got off the plane. Then the United employee went to a man five rows behind Mr. Bridges and told him he needed to get off the plane. Mr. Bridges said the man told the employee: “I’m not getting off the plane. I’m a doctor; I have to see patients in the morning.”
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