NBC New York - U.S. airlines bumped 40,000 passengers last year, not counting those who volunteered to give up their seats. United booted 3,765.
"Airline contracts of carriage state that seats are not guaranteed, and are written for the airline’s convenience not the passengers," George Hobica, founder and president of Airfarewatchdog.com, said of U.S. guidelines. "In this case the passenger had no 'legal' rights."
But Hobica said that "what’s so odd about this incident is that even if the flight was oversold to paying passengers, it appears from reports so far that this passenger was evicted from the plane to accommodate non-revenue United Express employees."
Travel lawyer Alexander Anolik wrote about involuntary removal for the American Bar Association in 2013 and said that passengers cannot sue an airline, but must rely on the Department of Transportation to enforce consumer protection regulations.
According to the Department of Transportation, "the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early." The department's website explains that bumped passengers are typically those who check in last.
Airlines will also usually bump people flying on the cheapest tickets because the required compensation will be lower. Carriers have other rules, too. United says that when deciding who gets bumped, it considers how long it will take for passengers to reach their destination on a later flight, it won't break up a family group, and won't bump minors who are traveling alone.
Airlines are most likely to oversell flights during busy travel periods such as spring break and the summer-vacation season, but bumping can happen any time there is bad weather that causes some flights to be canceled.
Federal rules spell out how much the airline must pay each passenger and airlines must give bumped passengers a written statement that explains their compensation rights.
If the passenger will arrive between one and two hours later than planned — or between one and four hours for an international flight — the airline must pay the passenger twice the amount of the one-way fare to his destination, up to $675. If the passenger will be delayed more than two hours — or four hours for international flights — the airline must pay him four times the one-way fare, up to $1,350.
Anolik noted that the legality of overbooking flights was established by a U.S. Supreme Court case between Ralph Nader and Allegheny Airlines in 1976. From that case, it established "a precedent allowing them to overbook so long as they give passengers sufficient notice."
This again raises questions about the notice the passenger received on Sunday's Chicago flight.