Contract of Carriage: The Really Fine Print Underlying Airline Travel

Contract of Carriage: The Really Fine Print Underlying Airline Travel

Why you should care

Because even the Constitution can’t guarantee you a seat on an airplane.

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In the wake of the national outcry over aviation cops dragging a man off a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport this week, you may have learned that United and other major airlines can remove passengers from planes for a variety of reasons, from oversold flights and crew priority to bare feet and bad odors. But it doesn’t stop there. An exacting review of United’s nearly 37,000-word “contract of carriage” reveals a host of other interesting things you may not have known you signed up for in flying the “friendly skies.” Here’s a translation of what all that fine print really means.

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CONTRACT OF CARRIAGE

Transportation of passengers and baggage provided by United Airlines are subject to the following terms and conditions. To the extent there is a conflict between this Contract and common sense, human decency or any universal moral law, this Contract shall govern. Suck it. You wanted to go to Reno on a Thursday. You belong to us now.

Reminder: This is where most people stop reading. Have you checked your Facebook notifications recently?

RULE 1: DEFINITIONS

As used in this Contract and throughout your travel with United, the following terms shall have the meanings ascribed below.

“Buh-bye” means good riddance.

“Checked baggage” means baggage that is too large to carry onto the plane but not too big for our baggage “handlers” to treat as a nascent projectile.

“Complimentary” means we have jacked up your ticket price by more than $50 in return for patchy Wi-Fi, a child-size soda and a bag of pretzels.

“First Class” means paying an additional $800 or more for four more inches of seat width. The air of superiority it confers? Priceless.

“In-flight entertainment” means the latest Adam Sandler or Reese Witherspoon movie, subject to availability and a sufficiently low rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

“Preboard” means nothing. We totally made it up.

“Reaccommodate” means to strip of accommodation.

“Water landing” means crashing into the fucking ocean. Only Jesus Christ and Sully Sullenberger can land on water, and they ain’t flying United.

United has the right to deny the boarding or the humanity of any passenger …

RULE 2: APPLICATION OF CONTRACT

Except where provided otherwise by law, United’s conditions of carriage are subject to change without notice, depending upon our stock price, the weather, what your gate agent ate for breakfast, acts of God, acts of demigods, wars, threatened wars, historical wars and any other disturbance, real or imagined or imagined to be real.

RULE 3: RESERVATIONS

A reservation for space on a United flight means you have been charged for a ticket but will not necessarily have the opportunity to use it. Your reservation is valid and confirmed when you arrive at your final destination and have not been bumped, hijacked, forcibly removed or otherwise reaccommodated during the course of your travel.

RULE 4: CANCELLATION OF RESERVATIONS

United has the right to deny the boarding or the humanity of any passenger whenever such action is necessary to comply with this Contract or to satisfy the whims of its executives, shareholders and their family members.

RULE 5: DELETED

Our lawyers said this had to go. It was seriously fucked up. You don’t want to know.

RULE 6: ACCEPTANCE OF CHILDREN

Children under the age of 5 must be accompanied by an adult passenger, provided that passenger spends no less than 90 percent of the flight on an electronic device while said child kicks the seat back and otherwise disturbs the passengers around them.

RULE 7: REFUSAL OF TRANSPORT

United shall have the right to remove from the aircraft, at any point, any passenger for the following reasons:

  • Passengers whose conduct is disorderly, mildly offensive, somewhat offensive or just acceptable.
  • Passengers who are barefoot, not properly clothed or whose Crocs and other choice of attire raise questions as to their fitness to travel across state lines.
  • Passengers who have a malodorous condition or who use a “natural” deodorant with questionable effectiveness.
  • Passengers in Business Class who do not have a Business Class ticket. EXCEPTION: Those passengers who are white male Caucasians over the age of 50. (Don’t worry, we won’t even check. Champagne?)
United protest

Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, protests against United Airlines.

Source JOSHUA LOTT/Getty

RULE 8: DENIED BOARDING COMPENSATION

When a flight has been oversold, United first will ask for passengers who are willing to voluntarily relinquish their confirmed space in exchange for a travel certificate of dubious value and utility. If there are not a sufficient number of suckers — ahem, volunteers — aboard an oversold flight, United shall proceed to deny boarding involuntarily based on a “random” selection of passengers according to their seating class, social class and portability.

RULE 9: REFUNDS

United will make no refund but may, at its discretion, provide a patently inadequate excuse for any inconvenience, discomfort, permanent medical setback, newly acquired medical condition or untimely death resulting from its denial of service.

RULE 10: CUSTOMER SERVICE COMPLAINTS

Customer complaints may be made to the following address: Customer “Care,” United Airlines, Inc., Houston, TX 77067. United reserves the right to reaccommodate any such correspondence as necessary to ensure it reaches its final destination: our garbage.

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