American carrier United Airlines has recently come under fire after a video of a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight went viral on social media. Despite outrage from the public, United Airlines has defended its actions citing its contract of carriage – an agreement that all customers agree to when booking – which gives the airline the freedom to deny ticketed passengers travel if a flight is overbooked.

If you are wondering what your legal rights are when booking a ticket with a South African airline, you’ll be glad to know that our consumer laws provide protection.

WARNING: Video contains disturbing scenes.

The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) safeguards consumers against overbooking and over-selling of goods or services.  In fact, airlines are technically not allowed to overbook flights because the CPA doesn’t allow a supplier or service provider to accept payment for goods or services that don’t exist. It has, however, become a standard practice in the industry to overbook flights.

If you have paid for and arrive on time for a flight that has been overbooked, the CPA gives you the right to receive a refund of the amount paid for the booking, plus interest at a prescribed rate.  Furthermore, you can also hold the airline responsible for costs incurred as a result of the overbooking. For example, if you have to spend the night in a hotel to catch a flight the next morning, you can claim the cost of your hotel stay from the airline.  The carrier could also offer an alternative, but comparable flight:  for example if you were going to fly to New York at 5 pm in First Class, but the flight was overbooked, and they can put you on the 7 pm flight in First Class then you cannot unreasonably refuse.  If you do, you won’t get you money back.

If an airline doesn’t offer an alternative and refuses any form of compensation, you can file a complaint with the National Consumer Commission. This is no quick-fix solution, but it is free and could see the airline being served a compliance notice for contravening the CPA.