The real reason you can’t use your older son’s airline ticket for your younger son

Seems like the airlines just don’t get it.

You’d think that after United settled with David Dao for the severe injuries he sustained while being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, airlines would understand that overselling flights and removing already-seated passengers won’t fly as a matter of customer service.

But a video showing Brian and Brittany Schear and two of their three children being ejected from a recent Delta flight has gone viral, showing that this is a lesson unlearned — at least by Delta.

The Schears were returning from Hawaii to Los Angeles on a red-eye flight with their three children: Mason (age 18), Grayson (age 2) and a one-year-old daughter. When Mason opted to fly home on a separate flight, they decided to seat Grayson in a car seat in Mason’s seat.

They notified the Delta gate agent that Mason would not be flying with them, and the agent agreed to allow the family to sit together, with Grayson in Mason’s now-unused seat. The family boarded the flight without incident. But while waiting for the flight to depart, they got bad news from a Delta employee: The flight was overbooked. Grayson would have to give up his seat and sit on the lap of one of his parents so that a standby passenger could sit in his seat.

Brittany Schear recorded her husband’s interaction with the employee. Brian Schear repeatedly pointed out to the employee “I paid for this seat.” He suggested that he hold Grayson on his lap until after takeoff, after which time Grayson would move back into his car seat on the seat adjacent to his own.

The employee refused to allow this, informing Schear that it was a “federal offense” if he did not yield Grayson’s seat and that he would be removed from the flight. She also claimed, incorrectly, that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules prohibit toddlers from being seated in car seats on airplane seats. The FAA website urges parents to restrain their children in government-approved child safety restraint systems or devices and not hold them on their laps.

Schear responded: “Then they can remove me off the plane….I bought this seat and you need to leave us alone.”

Finally, Schear agreed to put Grayson on his lap for the entire flight. But that was not good enough for Delta.

The airline’s employee ordered the entire family to deplane, threatening to have Brian and Brittany Schear arrested and their children placed with Child Protective Services if they did not comply: “You have to give up the seat or you’re going to jail, your wife is going to jail and they’ll take your kids from you.” The Schears deplaned, feeling that they couldn’t win.

And it got worse for the Schears: It was after midnight, and they had to find a hotel room for the night as well as book a new flight for the following day. Delta offered them no assistance and refused to refund their airfares. They paid over $2,000 for new flights home.

The next day, after Brittany Schear’s video went viral, Delta offered an apology to the family and reimbursement of an amount that has not been disclosed, as of this writing.

Unfortunately for the Schears, Delta was correct in asking them to remove Grayson from his seat.

Delta’s contract of carriage provides that

Tickets are not transferable, but the carrier is not liable to the owner of a ticket for honoring or refunding such ticket when presented by another person.

And for overbooked flights,

Because passengers with confirmed reservations on a flight sometimes fail to show, Delta reserves the right to sell more tickets for travel on each flight than there are seats available on the aircraft. In some cases, this may result in an “oversold flight,” i.e., a flight in which Delta cannot accommodate one or more passengers with confirmed reservations. In that case, Delta may deny boarding to passengers with confirmed reservations on the flight.

Since that seat had been booked in Mason’s name, only he could sit in it during that flight. Because he was not on that flight, Delta had the right to offer the seat to a standby passenger.

But this incident, in the wake of the Dao removal and other situations involving removals of paying passengers from overbooked flights, has led to congressional scrutiny of the practice of airline overbooking.

This led to a hearing which was attended by United CEO Oscar Munoz, who initially blamed Dao for the injuries he sustained while being violently removed by security personnel from his flight but later apologized after harsh criticism, and American Airlines president Scott Kirby, who defended overbooking as “something that actually helps us accommodate and take care of thousands more customers than we would otherwise be able to.”

The executives even had the nerve to ask Congress for further deregulation, requesting privatization of the FAA and relaxation of restrictions on airfare advertising.

But unfortunately for U.S. air passengers, while both Republican and Democratic members of Congress had plenty of complaints about bad flying experiences of their own, Congress was unwilling to legislate any protections, demanding that the airlines provide that protection themselves.

“I don’t believe in overburdening our businesses,” Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), told the executives. But he did warn them that Congress would act “the next time” if they don’t police themselves this time: “Seize this opportunity. Otherwise, we’re going to act and you’re not going to like it.”

We can only hope that the airlines will “seize this opportunity” to review and revise their customer service policies, including overbooking. But given this Congress’ unwillingness to regulate businesses, we’re not holding our breaths waiting for it to happen.

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