United Airlines’ motto invites its customers to “fly the friendly skies” aboard its planes. But the airline’s actions on the ground will make you think twice.
This wasn’t one, or several, United employees screwing up. This is United Airlines policy. Last week a man, Geoff Fearns, had to return early from Honolulu to LA so he bought a full price first class ticket. Took his seat. Was given a glass of orange juice. And then was told he had to leave the plane because someone more important needed his seat. Turns out the plane originally scheduled had a mechanical problem and was replaced with something smaller so first class was overbooked. When Fearns said he intended to keep the seat he had paid full price for he was told he would leave the plane on his own or in handcuffs. They wound up giving him a middle seat in economy, between a couple that was fighting and refused to sit next to each other (but did keep fighting).
No offer of a refund, or a cash payment. Get off the plane or we’ll have you arrested. He had to send an email to Oscar Munoz (Fearns is president of a half billion dollar real estate investment firm, he’s used to dealing with CEOs) requesting a full refund and a $25,000 donation to charity to get customer service to do anything at all, and then all they offered was the difference between first class and economy fares (which should have happened automatically when they bumped him down) and a $500 voucher for a future flight.
Police at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago boarded a United flight to Louisville prior to takeoff and physically pulled a man out of his seat, ultimately dragging him down the aisle and off the plane by his arms after he refused to leave the seat he had paid for. Videos of the incident taken by passengers quickly spread online.
The videos are as upsetting as they are infuriating. Passengers who witnessed the incident said the man being dragged out was a doctor who, like them, had paid for a ticket and had a seat assignment. He reportedly refused to leave his seat because he had patients to attend to in Louisville the next day.
According to United, the airline had overbooked the flight — a common practice that’s usually resolved because airlines find volunteers to change flights, or because ticketed passengers miss their flights. After United offered travel vouchers and didn’t find any takers, the man and three of his fellow passengers were reportedly randomly selected and asked to deboard.
When the man didn’t comply, brute force was applied.
This plane dragging incident is the airline’s second controversy in the past few weeks. At the end of March, the company found itself under harsh public scrutiny after it refused to allow two girls flying on “buddy passes” — as guests of an employee — to board because they were reportedly wearing leggings, which the airline said did not adhere to its dress code for that class of travel. According to United, that episode, like Sunday’s forceful deplaning, was simply the airline following protocol.
“United did not apologize for enforcing its buddy pass dress code. They explained the rule and said they regularly remind employees of it. ‘To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome,’ the airline said.”
Even if United was well within its rights both with the leggings incident and in bumping the Chicago passenger from his flight, most people can agree that its public explanation in both cases wasn’t a good look. But the issues run deeper than one airline, and the outrage that’s sprung up in response speaks to what a nightmare air travel can be and how the airline industry doesn’t seem to want to improve the experience. And perhaps more terrifying is the fact that the industry doesn’t really need to.
United can legally bump you from a flight you paid for, even if you’ve already boarded and taken your seat
Perhaps the biggest question initially surrounding the video was whether United was justified in removing the man from its flight: Can an airline forcibly take you off a plane if you’ve paid for a ticket, have a seat assignment, and have boarded?
The simple answer: Yes.
Airlines often book more people than they have space for on a given flight. Usually everything ultimately evens out — because people don’t show up, because flights and itineraries are swapped, or because airlines ask for and find volunteers from an overbooked flight to switch to a different one, in exchange for a voucher for future travel.
This flight was one of those times when the math didn’t work out.
In short, you can involuntarily get bumped from a flight that you’ve paid for, but airlines have to offer you compensation.
Rather, the problem was that United was too stingy in offering passengers compensation to voluntarily leave the airplane. Federal regulations give airlines a relatively easy out in situations like this: They can bump a passenger involuntarily if they pay four times the ticket price (up to $1,350).
That $1,350 figure was never reached in this case — news reports say that United offered up to $800, and then implemented the random drawing where four people were selected to get bumped from the flight.
United maintains that it acted within its rights.
On Monday, after news of the incident broke, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” customers:
There’s something hilariously terrifying about Munoz’s use of the phrase “re-accommodating.” In normal instances, “re-accommodating” sounds like it involves paying for a nearby hotel after canceling a flight or offering vouchers for future travel, but in this case, it refers to heaving a human being into a narrow airplane aisle and then pulling him out of the aircraft while he’s on his back.
“We followed the right procedures,” United spokesperson Charlie Hobart told the Associated Press. “That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations.”
In March, United said two girls wearing leggings could harm its reputation. Now the airline has a terrible one.
What makes Sunday’s transgression worse from a public relations standpoint is that this is the second time in a few weeks that United has been the subject of widespread outrage. The violent incident looks even worse as a follow-up to the aforementioned leggings controversy in March, when the airline refused to allow two teenage girls to fly from Denver to Minneapolis because the girls were wearing leggings that didn’t adhere to its dress code for buddy pass travel.
At the time, United was so concerned about its image that it prevented two girls in leggings from “representing the company” as guests of its employees. But now that image is in the garbage, because the airline has quickly become known as one that will physically pull paying customers off a flight if it has to.
On Monday evening, Munoz sent a letter to United employees stating that he stood by them and the actions taken in Chicago.
The outrage in response to these United incidents is exacerbated by people’s frustrations with the domestic airline industry
Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.
Flights are still expensive, even though the cost of jet fuel, a reason commonly cited by airlines for raising prices and adding fees, has gone down — in 2016, jet fuel prices were a third of what they were in 2014, but ticket prices didn’t decrease in kind. It’s cheaper for airlines to operate now than it was a few years ago, but they haven’t passed any savings on to customers.
Even though there are all these grievances and annoyances, and even though the concept of airlines taking your money and denying you a service is maddening, it’s the way airlines currently and will continue to work.
The bottom line is that the commercial airline industry isn’t competitive — four airlines make up 80 percent of the business. According to BuzzFeed, the US airline industry made an estimated $20 billion in profits in 2016. And there’s no incentive for them to make our experiences better, because customers don’t have much choice.
Airlines can make big money while shoving customer experiences into the gutter. What’s in it for them to change if what they’re doing is already profitable?
The small glimmer of hope for customers who are unhappy with airlines’ behavior is that United’s actions have gone viral. People with smartphones are everywhere, making it simple to document a grievance and share it on social media. With all the different videos taken on Sunday, it’s easy to see the difference between United’s official account of the man’s “re-accommodation” and what passengers actually witnessed.
Perhaps United’s massive bungle and the ensuing public relations nightmare might give the airline pause before it defends such actions. And maybe other airlines are watching how unhappy people are with United and are taking notes — there’s an article being widely shared online about howDelta ultimately paid one woman and her family $11,000 for volunteering multiple times to take different flights.
But judging from United’s lack of accountability in its official responses, it doesn’t seem that message is getting through fast enough.
First, the flight wasn’t overbooked. They took those four passengers off the plane to make room for United employees who were needed on another flight. UA sold exactly as many tickets as they had seats.
Second, yes, they were at fault. If an airline has to get a flight crew to Louisville, and that requires bumping paying customers off a flight, that airline has had a failure of planning.
OK, stuff happens – take care of it at the gate. Do not try to get people to leave an airplane they have already boarded.
And if you do forget to take care of the problem at the gate, keep increasing what you’re offering people to get off the plane until someone takes it. Don’t just say “$800 is enough, we’re calling the cops.”