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I do not fly often, but when traveling home from vacation with my family yesterday, I encountered something I have never seen and I am wondering if what the flight attendants were saying was true.

Originally, our aircraft was supposed to be an Airbus A321 but was downsized to an A319 (based on SeatGuru is about a 33% decrease in capacity). Since the flight was mostly full originally, this resulted in a significant overbooking. Of course they asked for volunteers to change flights (with some incentives). But while they were doing this they began the boarding process.

Once everyone was on board and seated (to be clear everyone on the plane had a seat but there were people still at the gate who apparently "needed" to be on the flight), the flight attendant announced that they still needed 3 more volunteers or the plane wasn't leaving. Eventually 3 more people volunteered the remaining passengers boarded and we got underway about 15 minutes late. Turns out the 3 people that needed to board were crew (not working on the flight), presumably trying to get to my destination airport to work.

But my question is what if no one volunteered? Would the airline be allowed to hold the aircraft at the gate indefinitely or refuse to leave unless someone gave up their seat? Everyone was on the plane and ready to go, so bumping someone against their will would have required physically removing them from the plane.

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    It's a bit unusual in that the airline's personnel would usually sort this out immediately before boarding and not let people actually enter the plane before figuring out it's overbooked. But apart from that it seems like a regular overbooking situation. At the end of the day, it would depend on local law and on the airline's terms and conditions but I don't see exactly why it would necessarily make a big difference from a legal point of view. – Relaxed Mar 8 '15 at 13:06
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    @SalvadorDali I explicitly did not mention them as I didn't want to make it about them..... but there are clues in my answer to the question in the "Linked" section of the side bar, and in my link to SeatGuru – psubsee2003 Mar 8 '15 at 22:37
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    @gmauch It's common for airlines to need to change equipment, even at the last minute. This usually results from a plane being down for unexpected maintenance or out of position for some reason (e.g. weather, etc.) I've had last-minute equipment changes several times. Once our equipment was changed from a 757 to a 767. That was the nicest maintenance problem I've ever experienced. - lol – reirab Mar 9 '15 at 2:25
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    @gmauch Well, now that I think about it, the nicest maintenance problem I've experienced might have actually been the free round-trip flight I got once for volunteering my seat in a situation very similar to the OP's where a smaller plane had to be used. - haha - They also gave us free supper in the airport. IIRC, we arrived maybe a couple of hours later than the people who took the original flight. – reirab Mar 9 '15 at 3:04
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    Follow-up: A couple of years after the OP, United forcibly removed a passenger from an airplane in a well-publicized incident. – Michael Seifert Oct 31 '17 at 20:01
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If it is overbooked, it can't take off. Each passenger must have a seat, it is not a bus.

In that particular case where the airline needs to move some crew from one airport to another (Deadheading Crew), they only do that in cases where the crew will be essential for a flight at the destination airport to take off, so for the greater good, they might remove some passengers. People might think this is bad, but in reality it is not, removing 3 passengers simply will make other flight with many passengers take off.

Regarding removing the passengers if no one volunteers, each airline will have its own criteria when it comes to removing passengers. For example, the airline I work for will remove the employees who are flying (as passengers and not crew) on free or discounted tickets first, if no employees then they will take people on discounted tickets and so on, they avoid touching people with frequent flyer status unless they volunteer.

Anyway, it all comes to the rules of each airline, they usually have their asses covered given that they will provide the removed passengers with some sort of compensation and another flight to take them to their destinations.

If no one volunteered (which is out of experience, not so often), the plane will not take off, it is a safety issue here. Airline then, depending on the local rules, will remove the passengers from the flight by force. Usually a ground agent will talk to the passengers and convince them. Second step will be calling the airport security to escort them out, I have personally seen this (I am a crew member). Again, this depends on the local rules, I can't just have an answer to cover the whole world.

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    Also, isn't the actual rule that a plane with too many people on board cannot take off? The airline could presumably at any time decide not to bring the deadheading crew on board after all. It's quite clear why they won't do that but it seems to me that it's still a decision they make, not a legal obligation or a safety rule. – Relaxed Mar 8 '15 at 13:09
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    "Each passenger must have a seat, it is not a bus." Each passenger did have a seat. The issue is that the airline put a passenger in every seat but then decided that it would rather take some other people instead. – David Richerby Mar 8 '15 at 13:53
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    @SalvadorDali your example is silly, you can not compare killing people with delaying them. – Nean Der Thal Mar 8 '15 at 22:45
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    @SalvadorDali: It might help to realize that the true criteria is not "the greater good", it's "the good of the airline". They are more interested in having the other flight able to operate than in getting every single ticketed passenger on this flight. Sure, you don't care about the other flight - but the airline does, you are on their plane, and ultimately they decide who gets to ride on it. Moreover, when you bought your ticket, you agreed that they could do that (you read the Contract of Carriage, didn't you?). – Nate Eldredge Mar 9 '15 at 1:37
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    Of course the plane cannot depart with more people in it than there are seats for, but the crew's choice to say "if nobody volunteers, we're not going anywhere" cannot be described other than horrifyingly childish and unprofessional. If nobody volunteers, they should pick someone to bump off involuntarily - throw darts at the passenger manifest if they've no better guideline to go by - but NOT just lean back passively and make the passengers collectively responsible for arranging some kind of straw-drawing among themselves. That's not why the crew is being paid and the passengers pay! – Henning Makholm Dec 4 '15 at 13:30
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To answer the title question directly, a pilot can refuse to take off for pretty much any reason. Similarly, an airline can cancel a flight for pretty much any reason. So, the short answer is: Yes, they can.

Longer answer: In the specific situation described here, it sounds like the aircraft originally scheduled to operate the flight became unavailable with relatively short notice (could be a mechanical issue arose or the plane was unexpectedly out-of-position due to a storm or some such thing.) The next best option was apparently an A319 they had lying around. Obviously, the latter is smaller than the former, which requires that some people must be denied boarding, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Of course, simply not operating the flight at all is also an option, but it's a rather dumb one in most circumstances and the airline is unlikely to actually do that.

They will, of course, try for voluntary denied boarding (by offering the incentives you mentioned) first. This is better for everyone as people who need to get to their destination on schedule still do while those with more flexible schedules can get some nice perks. I've even had a case personally where we volunteered our seats and were rebooked onto a direct flight on another airline that actually arrived before our originally-scheduled flight that required a connection - and still got the offered airline credit voucher out of it, too. - haha - Also, in a significantly overbooked situation where not enough people appear to be volunteering, you can have some significant bargaining leverage here, too. You can always try to bargain for something better than what they're offering. The worst they can say is no. They have a pretty big incentive (avoiding an angry horde of passengers) to get volunteers. In most cases, though, enough people will volunteer quickly that you won't have much leverage.

Failing voluntary denied boarding, they'll resort to involuntary denied boarding, though, as MeNoTalk mentioned, this is relatively rare. These passengers will still generally be compensated, but, of course, it could mess up their schedule. If you are selected for involuntary denied boarding and (for some odd reason) are already on the aircraft and you refuse to leave, you're failing to comply with the instructions of a flight crew, which is a crime in most (if not all) countries. As MeNoTalk mentioned, you should expect an unfriendly encounter with the local police in this situation, so I wouldn't advise it.

As a matter of clarification, 'denied boarding' is the term normally used by airlines for the situation where a passenger either volunteers to take a flight other than the one they're scheduled on ('voluntary denied boarding') or is forced to take another flight ('involuntary denied boarding') even though their scheduled flight is still operating. As far as I know, it's still considered a 'denied boarding' regardless of whether the decision for you not to take that flight happens before or after you've physically boarded the plane. The term 'bumping' is also used less formally to describe these situations, though, if I remember correctly, it technically only refers to involuntary denied boarding. The legality of the airline's options is generally unaffected by whether or not you've physically boarded the plane. Certainly the option of not actually operating the flight is always available to the airline and/or pilot.

  • I completely understand being denied boarding. My core question is about the fact that everyone was on the plane and had a seat. So being denied boarding isn't an option. They would have needed to physically remove someone from the plane who did not want wait for the next flight. I can see the airline looking bad in that situation which got me wondering if they would/could have really waited as long as necessary to make someone volunteer. – psubsee2003 Mar 9 '15 at 7:25
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    @psubsee2003 I've added a clarification regarding the 'denied boarding' terminology. As far as I know, it's called a 'denied boarding' regardless of whether you've physically boarded the aircraft or not. While the airline certainly could wait as long as they wanted for someone to volunteer, in reality they'd just pick people to remove if no one volunteered. They always have the option of not operating the flight, but that's an option they'd really rather not take, since it means no revenue, an out-of-position aircraft (and crew,) and lots of angry passengers. – reirab Mar 9 '15 at 8:35
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    @psubsee2003 they certainly can remove some passengers if noone volonteers. They can also remove all passengers who have boarded, cancel/postpone their flight and use the plane in some other way - I once had such a situation where my flight was put on a plane which was initially intended for another route and had already been fully boarded. – Peteris Mar 9 '15 at 16:10

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