Earlier I shared the video of a passenger being physically dragged off last night’s United flight between Chicago and Louisville. The flight was overbooked and United needed to reposition a crew to Louisville, so they needed to have some passengers get off the plane. One guy refused, so the police were called. He still refused to get off, so they dragged him off the plane, to the point that he started bleeding.
The whole situation is terribly humiliating, and could have been avoided… I’d argue on both sides. However, mainly United should have never let it get to this point. Courier-Journal has a story about what apparently happened in terms of the airline offering compensation:
Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday. Passengers were allowed to board the flight, Bridges said, and once the flight was filled those on the plane were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats, Bridges said, and the offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered.
Then, she said, a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted.
So the airline offered $400 in compensation, and then raised it to $800 after no one took the offer. That’s a lot of money, and it always surprises me how people don’t go for such high offers (I suspect it’s because people fear that there are all kinds of terms associated with the vouchers, just as there seem to be “catches” with just about everything involving airlines).
The passenger was repeatedly asked to get off the plane, but refused:
Bridges said the man became “very upset” and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, Bridges said, and the man said he was calling his lawyer. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane.
The two issues with this situation
I wasn’t intending to be dismissive of this guy’s situation earlier, and I realize that’s how it may have come across, and for that I apologize (I started writing the post at 4:45AM, before I had my first cup of coffee). I see too much of this garbage, and I guess I’m unfairly desensitized to this. The thing that makes this different than other situations we’ve seen is that this passenger wasn’t removed for doing anything wrong (usually passengers are removed for bad behavior), but rather because United overbooked the flight.
I see two distinct issues here:
- United didn’t do everything they could to solicit volunteers, and this situation was entirely avoidable
- Once an airline decides you’re going to be removed from a flight, there’s nothing you can do, and it’ll only end poorly for you; right or wrong, this is a sad reality of the times, and the police will back up and enforce whatever decision the airline makes
What United and most other airlines should do differently
For better or worse, airlines overbook, and that’s nothing new. It’s a calculated business decision they make because they know that on average a certain number of people don’t make their flight. However, sometimes their projections aren’t correct, and more passengers make the flight than they were expecting.
In this case there was the added complication of them needing to position a crew to Louisville. I assume this was a last minute decision, which made the overbooked situation even worse. This was likely the necessary and right decision, or else a flight the next day would have likely been canceled.
At that point they need people to get off the plane, and this is where the real problem arises:
- Airlines are required to ask for volunteers in exchange for compensation, though the regulations make no requirements as to how often they ask for volunteers, how much they raise their offer, etc.
- At that point they can involuntarily deny boarding to passengers; technically the passengers should be entitled to cash compensation, though typically the airline won’t tell them that’s an option, and instead will just give them a voucher
This is the bigger issue, the way I see it. The airlines are allowed to make a business decision to oversell a flight. If they make that business decision, they should also be required to suffer whatever the consequences are of that. Is it right to make a business decision to oversell a flight, and then kick someone off against their will? Shouldn’t they have to raise the offer until someone accepts it?
This isn’t just United, but the same is true at most airlines. I guess part of the problem is that the front line employees aren’t really given much authority or incentive to avoid involuntarily denying boarding to passengers. So often they just make one quick announcement asking for volunteers, and if that doesn’t work, they take passengers off against their will.
That system is sort of screwed up, in my opinion. Even in a case like this, I imagine if they had explained the situation clearly and raised their offer, they would have gotten volunteers, and this whole situation could have been avoided.
This situation, and any involuntary denied boarding situation, is completely preventable. The problem is that airlines don’t give frontline employees the incentives or tools to make sure they only voluntarily deny boarding to passengers. So if the situation had been explained better or the offer raised, I imagine this whole situation could have been avoided. You see people kicked off planes all the time for how they act, but in this case the guy did nothing wrong, other than want to fly in the seat he paid for.
In this case the police was essentially acting on behalf of United’s revenue management department, rather than dealing with someone who did anything wrong.
But there’s still a lesson here for passengers, which is that for better or worse, protesting on a plane won’t end well for you. I’m not saying it’s right, but it is the reality. It wouldn’t have gotten this guy to work the next day, but at least it would have helped him avoid a bloody face.
Yeah, it’s pretty bad when you book a seat on a flight, do nothing wrong, and somehow end up getting physically dragged off the plane by three police officers.
This has been a quickly-moving story with myriad updates. The full coverage of the United incident from the One Mile at a Time team is as follows: