I was recently surprised to see a man roughly and forcibly physically removed from an overbooked flight by three police officers because his flight was overbooked. He was reportedly a doctor who needed to see patients the next morning, so he did not really want to get off, justifying the use of force.

I knew that airlines could overbook flights and deny boarding to some passengers, but I thought that kind of boarding denial would happen at the gate and that once folks had been let on, those denied boarding would be those arriving later to the gate.

Why or in what conditions is this kind of forcible removal considered OK?

Clarification following close votes from people who think this question is primarily opinion-based: By "OK" I mean the sense of "legally OK," "officially accepted," "instantiated as policy," "sanctioned by authorities," or "OK according to the regulations and policies and laws and whatever other formal rules govern forced removal from flights due to overbooking." Whether or not you personally consider it socially acceptable does not matter as an answer, unless you have formalized that into a citeable adopted form that governs what happens and want to explain the reasoning behind that rule.

  • 4
  • 25
    It seems to me that if it were a question solely of overbooking, how did the 'extra' person get on the flight in the first place? Seems to require multiple oversights at various stages by the airline.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:02
  • 11
    @MadHatter the additional passengers were last moment airline employees, and the flight had already been delayed on the tarmac, hence why the paying passengers had already boarded.
    – user29788
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:41
  • 2
    Unbelievable! Money offered to volunteers usually takes care of the problem. No volunteers? One woman reported she made $11,000 taking the money for her family seats from a planned vacation. She said she is happy and a loyal Delta customer. Apr 11, 2017 at 8:31
  • 1
    this is the article Sue Dieringer is talking about: forbes.com/sites/laurabegleybloom/2017/04/09/… Apr 11, 2017 at 10:28

4 Answers 4


The relevant legislation very well could be 49 U.S. Code § 46504 - Interference with flight crew members and attendants.

An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties

From the report we have an eyewitness saying the man got very upset when told he should leave the flight. Perhaps this was interpreted as "intimidating a flight crew member".

Edit: also the contract of carriage has this to say:

UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons: ... Whenever refusal or removal of a Passenger may be necessary for the safety of such Passenger or other Passengers or members of the crew including, but not limited to:

Passengers whose conduct is disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent;

Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives;

  • 5
    @Andy I agree completely, however the point is that the airline should have never put the passenger in that position. As it was mentioned, if they had some internal problem which led to them having to remove passengers, they should have used alternatives mentioned above, because customer service and the image of the airline are important. Also, the removal of a passenger by forceful means should only be done by professionals capable of guaranteeing the physical safety of all involved, including themselves and the passenger. Apr 11, 2017 at 4:54
  • 5
    Furthermore, in this specific case, the guy had a compelling reason not to leave. He is a Doctor who had to see patients pretty much as soon as he got off the flight. The Doctor requested time to speak to his lawyer to see if he would be legally covered should he not make the flight.
    – SGR
    Apr 11, 2017 at 10:32
  • 3
    The key point is in the very last sentence: "Passengers who fail to comply with [...] members of the flight crew." A member of the flight crew told him to get off the plane and he refused to comply, and that's already grounds for removal, whatever happens next. Apr 11, 2017 at 14:16
  • 4
    @user1997744 The removal was done by professionals: it was the airport security people, not the cabin crew, who removed him from the flight. Apr 11, 2017 at 14:17
  • 5
    @SGR "the guy had a compelling reason not to leave. He is a Doctor" Doesn't matter; he was asked to leave.
    – bye
    Apr 11, 2017 at 15:48

I have seen several cases with companies asking 2-3 passengers to get off the flight while they are already at their seat, ready for the take off.

Why is this happening so late and not earlier? Some planes are flying close (short and mid-haul) to the weight limit when they are full. Depending on the number of luggage and number of passengers really getting into the plane, it could end up that a plane is above the limit while if you remove 2 passengers, it is ok. This isn't something they could really have predicted in advance as the luggage is unknown until they are checked in and on the same way, some people check in online but never show up at the gate. So you only really know the total weight once passengers and luggage are in!

Now what are the criteria? First let me tell you that the one being designated by the airline will always find it unfair. And it is! If we are taking the plane on a date, it is usually because we are in some kind of hurry to get to another place. Nobody is taking the plane one week in advance :)

So for the criteria, the focus will first go on people that aren't on a transit flight as the company doesn't want to delay a larger travel. Then, if they need to disembark 2 people, they will check if there are 2 persons traveling together willing to get off the plane (this reduces the potential hotel costs for the airline). They certainly avoid hitting loyal or higher classes travelers. While nobody will explicitly confirm this rule, I have never seen a first class passenger being forced to get off the plane. I am sure there are other written and non written rules but I am not aware of all of these.

And I am not surprised that they call to call some policemen to make it happen. Is it shocking? Certainly! But surprising not really. People being asked to disembark can have all kind of reactions from crying to shouting or even hitting the crew. The police will eventually in this situation...

  • 5
    Wouldn't they typically bump luggage off before passengers? Also, some people do take the plane days in advance, to play tourist before an important appointment.
    – WBT
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:14
  • 3
    Airlines compensate for delayed luggage?!? The most I've seen is that they will put it on another flight and if you're lucky, drive it to the place where you're staying.
    – WBT
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:18
  • 2
    Yes, for instance, in Europe, you can buy some clothes and what is required for the first few days of your travel and the airline will refund those (there is obviously a capping).
    – Laurent
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:20
  • 1
    @Laurent "shouting at" is likely the transitive phrasal verb you are looking for. Also, this was a US domestic flight, which somewhat weakens the argument as it applies to this case, but if it applies in Europe you may want to qualify rather than removing content from the answer.
    – WBT
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:28
  • 7
    @WBT in this particular instance, the additional passengers were deboarded because four airline employees needed to be boarded at the last moment - that is why they didn't bump luggage or do it earlier.
    – user29788
    Apr 10, 2017 at 14:38

I knew that airlines could overbook flights and deny boarding to some passengers, but I thought that kind of boarding denial would happen at the gate and that once folks had been let on, those denied boarding would be those arriving later to the gate.

In the case of the United 3411 incident, this happened because the flight needed the seats for staff members who had to cover an unstaffed flight in a "downline connection".

From Wikipedia: United Express Flight 34111 incident

After passengers were seated in the aircraft, but while the plane was still at the gate, the Republic Airlines flight crew announced that they needed to remove four passengers to accommodate four staff members who had to cover an unstaffed flight at another location. Passengers were initially offered US$400 in vouchers, a hotel stay, and a seat on a plane leaving more than 21 hours later if they voluntarily deplaned. With no volunteers, the offer was increased to $800.

From USA Today, quoting United

“They were considered ‘must-ride’ passengers,” he said. "It was all about repositioning the crew."

Guerin acknowledged the United initially categorized the flight as overbooked as news of the video grew, but is offering the “clarification” now that the company knows more facts about the incident.

So, the answer to your question seems to be that passengers can be removed from the seats if the airline decides that a "must-ride" passenger (such as crew needed for an unstaffed flight) need them.

  • The flight was apparently not oversold but became technically over booked once the crew arrived. The terms are not interchangeable often used that way. In this case, the difference is relevant only to why UA had to offload passengers.
    – DTRT
    Apr 13, 2017 at 20:03
  • yes, and I think that difference is why the OP asked the question. The OP thought "that kind of boarding denial would happen at the gate and that once folks had been let on, those denied boarding would be those arriving later to the gate" . This is not true if the late-arrivals are crewmembers I guess
    – user69715
    Apr 13, 2017 at 20:58

Citations on the guidelines for Use of Force by Chicago Aviation Security included below.

In the specific case of UA 3411:

This case has become highly sensationalized with commentary on many otherwise irrelevant aspects. Strip away the hysteria and you have a rather unremarkable law enforcement action. Nearly every other time Police are called, people 'voluntarily' de-board after being asked 'nicely' with no further incident.

The reasons he was removed from the manifest are a completely separate issue/topic/discussion.

What rules govern forced removal from flights [all cases]?


Chicago Police Department - General Order G03-02 - Use of Force Guidelines**

The most important point is that the passenger was not removed by United personnel. They would be absolutely forbidden from engaging any passenger like this. Chicago Airport Police/Aviation Security* executed the removal.

Why or in what conditions is this kind of forcible removal considered OK?

The decision to forcibly remove the passenger was made by Chicago Airport Police. United had no role in the actual forced removal. Airport Police were called to deal with a non-compliant (former) passenger. Once he was non-compliant with Police instructions, the Police handled it according to their guidelines. At this point, it is highly unlikely United personnel could have stopped the removal if they wanted to.

* Chicago has a relatively complicated approach to airport policing between the Department of Aviation and Chicago Police Department. I choose to use general terms to not get bogged down in differences of minor consequence.

** For added clarity, Aviation Security may very well have additional guidelines due to their special operational guidelines. For example, unlike most airport policing, they are unarmed.

  • 3
    Please go to chat to discuss.
    – JoErNanO
    Apr 11, 2017 at 19:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .