By now you’ve almost certainly seen the movies showing a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from a flight last night. I have, too. And the number of different ways everyone screwed up is hard to fathom.
United had a crew out of position and needed to get those employees to Louisville. The only way to get them there in time was on a flight that was already full. With the choice of screwing hundreds of passengers in the following hours or just a handful on the one flight the company chose to put the employees on board; they are flagged as “must-ride” in the system and it means exactly that. That is a smart choice and one that every airline will make time and again. But making that move comes with certain challenges, namely finding four other passengers willing to trade their seat for some compensation.
Even at $800 in comp (plus presumably the overnight hotel, meals, etc.) United failed to find the four it needed. The first two IDB candidates left quietly enough. The doctor did not and authorities were called. The resulting removal was not pretty, to say the least. Could United have gone higher in compensation offer? Absolutely? If it has strict policies that prevent such then those should be revisited. Especially when it is a case of must-ride employees and not a more common oversell tied to maximizing yields.
When a flight goes into an oversell situation generally the agents try to manage it before boarding starts. I’ve had a few cases where a gate agent solicits volunteers from already boarded passengers but those are rare. Maybe the must-ride crew showed up after boarding started but getting passengers to leave a plane after they’ve boarded is hard. Yes, it is still “denied boarding” in airline parlance but that doesn’t play so well in the real world. And at this point the guy was in a denied boarding scenario. It was not a voluntary one, but it is still denied boarding. He was seated and ready to fly but no longer had a valid ticket for such. It sucks, but his obligation at that point per the ticket he purchased was to stand up and walk off the plane.
Once the police are called (they didn’t just show up on their own; their presence was a direct result of United’s actions) there is not a ton United can do to control the way in which the passenger is removed. And, in my experience, the presence of officers usually persuades even the most reluctant. That didn’t happen here. The escalation of the situation by the officers at that point is the sort of thing PR nightmares are made of, and United is in the midst of one right now. The officer was reportedly placed on leave but that’s not so helpful to the guy who was dragged off the plane.
Up to this point just about everything that could go wrong did. And yet, just a few hours later, it was about to get much, much worse.
United Airlines Responds
The initial replies on Twitter were tepid at best. United was not ready to handle the onslaught and deferred to authorities. Later on Monday the CEO got involved. I’ve met Oscar and heard him speak at multiple events. I would be very, very surprised to learn that the statement issued in his name on Monday originated from him in that tone and style. It simply doesn’t match what I’ve seen in the past.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
Most significantly, Munoz falls short on taking responsibility for the mess. The statement uses industry terms (“re-accommodate” is the worst offender here) rather than plain language and is a spectacular display of the passive voice. There is no ownership of the incident or even really mention of the specific incident itself. I have no doubt that much of the message is limited based on potential legal issues associated with the incident, but failing to own the problem means it will continue to spiral out of control.
There’s also the part where it took hours for United to be ready to respond. That it is possible for an airline (or any company) to have a incident where the police are involved and not have CorpComm alerted relatively quickly to be crafting a response and getting out ahead of the issue is somewhere between bad business and incompetence. Hoping that no one will notice is no longer an option when nearly everyone has a video camera and broadcast system in their pocket. Playing defense in these situations is always bad.
The worst part
So, pretty much everyone screwed up along the way here. That all sucks. But the worst part is that I expect very little to change.
Maybe United will allow more leeway in comp offers at the gate. Maybe some passengers will not fly on United for some period of time but when fares are $5 cheaper or the schedule is 10 minutes better they’ll likely be back. Besides, you were much less likely to face an IDB scenario last week than a full operational meltdown cancelling thousands of flights over several days last week thanks to some thunderstorms.
Carrot or Stick
Every airline has a carrot and a stick to work with when it comes to these situations. Usually the carrot works well enough that the stick is not necessary. And, quite frankly, when the carrot isn’t working then get a bigger carrot. Because no one wins when the stick comes out.
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