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What's the lesson from United's PR disaster?

And will it change airlines' ability to involuntarily bump passengers?

Photo (c) Robert Wilson - Fotolia
When United Airlines forcibly removed a paying customer from its Chicago to Louisville flight Sunday, to make room for a United crew member, it set off a firestorm on social media.

There are no fewer than 10 videos of the encounter on YouTube, and the airline is in full damage control mode.

But here's a larger question: have airlines now lost their ability to involuntarily bump passengers from an oversold flight?

After all, consumers now know that if they don't want to be removed from a flight, all they have to do is refuse to budge and go limp, daring security personnel to drag them down the aisle as dozens of smartphones capture the video. What airline wants that?

Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, says Sunday's PR disaster probably won't change the balance of power between airline and passenger, at least not that much.

Bumps usually happen in the gate area

"What almost never happens, but happened here, is the guy was already on board and in a seat," Kaplan told ConsumerAffairs. "If a passenger is involuntarily bumped, it's going to almost always happen in the gate area."

Kaplan says the United incident is unlikely to set a precedent because the way it happened is rare. He also says it is important to airlines that they retain the ability to oversell flights, then involuntarily bump passengers if there are not enough volunteers to wait for a later flight. It's just the way the system works.

Not all airlines overbook

"Their goal is to have a full flight, and because some people don't show up for flights, they overbook," Kaplan said. "But there are airlines that don't do it. JetBlue doesn't overbook its flights."

The lesson for airlines, he says, is to give a little more thought to how they handle a similar situation. It might actually have been cheaper in the long run for United to lease another aircraft to fly the single United crew member to Louisville.

"There are things in the world that are unavoidable," Kaplan said. "This was not one of them."

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