On Sunday night, a video surfaced of a man being forcibly removed by airport security while he was on a United Airlines regional flight at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, Illinois. The elderly passenger in the video, who appeared to be unconscious as he was dragged from his seat, was later identified as 69-year-old David Dao, a doctor who refused to voluntarily give up his seat because he said that he had patients to see the next day.
A widely circulated tweet and many major news outlets, including the New York Times and CNN, incorrectly reported that United Flight 3411 was overbooked. The practice of overbooking allows airlines to keep prices low for consumers since overselling seats means that a flight has a greater chance of being full. However, other passengers on the flight, and the CEO of United Airlines, explained that the flight was not, in fact, overbooked but that four passengers had been requested to give up their seats for crew members who had to commute to Louisville, Kentucky, to work on flights the following day.
Even The New Yorker, which understood that passengers were bumped for crew members, referred to the problem as an "overbooked" flight, clearly not understanding what overbooked actually means. (The only way the flight could have been overbooked would be if flights always have empty seats for unanticipated crew members to fly for free, which would defeat the purpose of overselling in the first place.)
The fact that the flight was not overbooked may seem trivial, or pedantic, but there is very important legal distinction to be made. There may not be a difference in how an airline (typically) responds when it needs additional seats, such as asking for volunteers who wish to give up their seat for a voucher or cash. But there is a legal difference between bumping a passenger in the instance of overselling a flight versus bumping a passenger to give priority to another passenger. Any thoughtful person can see the problem that arises if an airline were allowed to legally remove one fare-paying passenger to allow for another passenger it prefers.
Since the flight was not actually overbooked, but instead only fully booked, with the exact number of passengers as seats available, United Airlines had no legal right to force any passengers to give up their seats to prioritize others. What United did was give preference to their employees over people who had reserved confirmed seats, which would have been a violation of 14 CFR 250.2a (if the flight were overbooked, as United had originally claimed). Since Dr. Dao was already seated, it was clear that his seat had already been "reserved" and "confirmed" to accommodate him specifically.
A United Airlines spokesperson said that since Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat and leave the plane voluntarily, airline employees "had to" call upon airport security to force him to comply. However, since the flight was not overbooked, United Airlines had no legal right to give his seat to another passenger. In United Airline's Contract of Service, they list the reasons that a passenger may be refused service, many of which are reasonable, such as "failure to pay" or lacking "proof of identity." Nowhere in the terms of service does United Airlines claim to have unilateral authority to refuse service to anyone, for any reason (which would be illegal anyway).