I recently watched a short Youtube video where a copyright lawyer (thus, not his area of expertise) was discussing the United Airlines incident where they had a passenger removed by force when he refused to deplane voluntarily.
The point of the video was to review United's Contact of Carriage, which as I understand, is the contact you agree to whenever you purchase a ticket from United. There are three sections in the Contract which seem like they might be relevant:
RULE 21 REFUSAL OF TRANSPORT
discusses the reasons for which United has the right to remove a passenger from its plane. There is a list of them, but most notably, "overbooked flight" is not one of those reasons.
RULE 5 CANCELLATION OF RESERVATIONS
G. All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.
specifies that United may overbook its flights, and as a purchaser, you're agreeing that you may not get to actually use the ticket you bought due to overbooking. However, in the event of an overbooking, it refers to:
RULE 25 DENIED BOARDING COMPENSATION
which goes through the procedure by which United will attempt to solicit volunteers to forfeit their tickets in exchange for compensation; then, if needed, resort to selecting passengers to involuntarily forfeit their tickets, etc.
However, point was raised that Rule 6 and Rule 25 talk about denial of boarding in the case of overbooking. In this specific situation, the passenger had already boarded – United had already given the passenger his "reserved space", and was now asking him to "give it back".
Is there any real difference between those two events? Does the fact that the Contract of Carriage talks about "boarding", but not "removal after boarding", make any legal difference as far as United's rights in this case?
Just to clarify: I realize that overbooking itself is a legal business practice, as it's called out specifically in the Contract. But the Contact also lays out specifically what happens when overbooking occurs, and this event doesn't appear to be covered.
I also recognize that United's airplane is ultimately private property and remaining in your seat after being told to leave is probably trespassing in some sense. And once security was called and the passenger disobeyed, he was clearly in the wrong. But that doesn't mean UA didn't breach their contract in having him removed in the first place.