United finds a new way to make itself look awful, and then its CEO shows how to make things worse

The adage about a picture being worth a thousand words never seemed as true as it did early Monday morning, when a video clip shot around the Internet showing a passenger being violently removed from a United Airlines plane in Chicago for refusing to be “voluntarily” bumped from the flight.

United no doubt will expend thousands of words explaining or apologizing for this incident in coming hours, days and weeks. It won’t help. The video is just too raw.

Indeed, the airline’s initial response to the publicity already has left it covered in shame.

United’s PR department first issued a statement explaining blandly that the Chicago-to-Louisville flight late Sunday was overbooked, and that “after our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

United CEO Oscar Munoz then made things worse with a statement of Orwellian doublespeak. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” whatever that means.

[UPDATE: According to CNBC, Munoz followed up Monday evening with a letter to employees defending the airline’s ground staff and describing the still-unidentified passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” He said the airline agents “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”

[But Munoz, whose version of the episode appears to come from the playbook of how to dig oneself into an ever deeper hole, also undermined the argument that the flight was overbooked. He related that “after the flight was fully boarded,” gate agents “were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.” The implication is that the crewmembers heading to Louisville were late in arriving, that every passenger held a paid ticket and had been properly boarded, and only that only belatedly did United decide to pull passengers off the plane to make room.

[It’s unclear from United’s contract of carriage how either its rule regarding “refusal of transport” (Rule 21) or “denied boarding compensation” (Rule 25) applies to a passenger already seated and instructed to deplane to make room for a company employee rather than another paying passenger.

[Whether United had “no choice” but to forcibly eject the passenger also is questionable, as presumably the airline could have transported its crewmembers to Louisville either by road (a five-hour drive) or by chartering another aircraft. In any event, Munoz in his letter asserts that “treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.”]

Plainly this was a botched job in countless ways and at multiple levels. The reports are that the flight was the last one to Louisville on Sunday, and that United offered passengers up to $800 plus overnight accommodations and an alternative flight leaving Monday afternoon in order to free up four seats for a flight crew needing to reach Louisville.

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When the voluntary offer failed, four passengers evidently were chosen at random to be involuntarily bumped. This happened after the plane had been loaded, which is certainly an unusual wrinkle in the annals of passenger treatment. One couple went quietly, but another passenger objected. Before being dragged off the plane, he reportedly identified himself as a doctor with patients to see on Monday. When he refused to go, the ground staff summoned airport police, who physically manhandled him out of his seat and dragged him, bloodied, down the aisle as several other passengers documented the event on their smartphones. The plane was delayed by two hours.

What sort of training United offers its personnel to manage such episodes isn’t known, but plainly it stinks.

What’s even more important is what this episode says about the terms and conditions of air travel in the United States. It’s in a bad way.

To begin with, the law allows air carriers to overbook flights — that is, sell more tickets than they have seats for. That’s plainly a situation that benefits the airlines almost exclusively, because it tends to ensure that every seat will be filled even at the cost of leaving some passengers behind. How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?

Passengers bumped involuntarily have rights to compensation, but the airlines have great latitude to set their own priority rules for bumping travelers. Typically it’s those paying the lowest fares, lacking membership in a frequent-flyer program, or checking in late who are most at risk. Bumpees who are going to be more than two hours late to a domestic destination are entitled to compensation of 400% of their one-way fare, up to $1,350, plus the value of their ticket.

These rules, obviously, are in dire need of upgrading to suit modern conditions. The Department of Transportation acknowledges in its outline of passenger rights that some passengers may be more amenable to voluntary bumping than others, or more flexible in their travel plans: “Almost any planeload of airline passengers includes some people with urgent travel needs and others who may be more concerned about the cost of their tickets than about getting to their destination on time.” The agency encourages airlines to “negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation” in order to secure needed seats.

As Daniel Gross observed at Slate.com, airlines have squeezed their overbooking privilege until it screams for mercy, even as they’re consistently flying fuller planes. (Question: When was the last time you boarded a plane that had more than a small handful of middle seats open?) In the most recent boom-and-bust airline cycle, the industry “load factor” — the percentage of seats filled — bottomed out at 72.21% in February 2009, in the teeth of a crushing recession, but more recently has run in the mid-80s. That appears to be as high as it’s been in this century and may be an absolute limit, because some routes will never run at 100%.

Tighter passenger loads have coincided with an economic recovery that makes flyers more resistant to giving up hours, even days, of inconvenience, even for a few hundred bucks. As Gross pointed out, a two-hour delay in a flight could translate to a missed family event or a lost business contract; the Department of Transportation is exactly right about the diverse flexibility of passenger needs.

The solution to the conflict between an airline’s desire to fill every seat and passengers’ need to get where they’re going on time is blindingly obvious: let the market work. The Louisville doctor’s need to get home was clearly worth more to him than $800. But so was United’s need to get a crew from Chicago to Louisville. The airline decided to cheap out by not offering passengers payment that would be enough to free up more seats. Instead of paying the true value of moving its crew, it decided to impose that cost on one unfortunate passenger.

Then, as though to prove beyond doubt that it considered its passengers the expendable players in this drama, it summoned the police to do its dirty work. Something’s wrong with the intellects running United Airlines, and if there’s any justice in the world, now they’ll really pay.

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