My Thoughts on United’s Latest Fiasco and How They Screwed Up

Overnight I learned of a fiasco from United involving a man that was dragged off a flight because United had to accommodate a positioning crew from Chicago to Louisville. I was pretty astonished at the situation last night, but decided to sleep over it as I was exhausted and I don’t write too well under exhaustion. It’s good that I slept over it, as the situation has unwound into something astonishing beyond belief.

Image result for united 777 site:hongkongairlinenews.wordpress.comUnited Boeing 777-200 Hong Kong Airport

So, I’ll try to summarize everything:

  • United overbooked a flight from Chicago to Louisville, but they had to position a crew there
  • The crew tried to ask for volunteers with an offer for US$800 (presumably in cash), though no one wanted to get off
  • The crew eventually randomly generated four passengers to be booted through a computer and three of them left
  • The fourth was confused as to why he was denied the right to fly and stated that he was a doctor that had to return to Louisville to help patients
  • The crew decided to call the police and the man was dragged off the flight
  • Oscar Munoz released a press release trying to clear the situation, but…

United soon published a newsletter to their team that left all potential customers (me included) enraged and questioning the integrity of the company:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clear picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed stablished procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go and above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.

Oscar

  • On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agent were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight
  • We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crewmember instructions.
  • He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
  • Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
  • Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials

My emotions today regarding this have gone from enraged to confused, but at the end of the day we can probably all admit that this was a huge screwup on United’s behalf. How?

Everyone values flying differently

The gist of the situation was that the man “wasn’t cooperative” with staff and therefore was dragged off the flight. This statement is flawed on a number of levels:

  • When is not complying with crewmember instructions illegal? Sure, sometimes the situation is black and white. But what if the crewmember asks you to stop taking pictures when it isn’t actually against any FAA aviation rules (and it’s in a safe environment to do so)? What if the crewmember stops you from using the bathroom because of “operational difficulties”? What if they ask you to give up your seat for a crewmember when it was clearly United’s fault for not preparing seats otherwise? As you can see here, it’s a slippery slope, and while it is technically against aviation law to be noncompliant with crewmember instructions, I don’t think the law should be abused.
  • When was the last time you went on a flight to be reminded that it was against aviation law to be noncompliant with crewmember instructions? Does the average flyer understand that if they don’t comply with the crew’s instructions, they risk being kicked off the flight? It gets pretty obvious if we’re talking about some actions that would otherwise be illegal, such as smoking onboard an aircraft. But when considering different actions such as keeping your seat aboard an aircraft, this rule may be harder to understand for some people.
  • How important is flying to everyone? The man could have paid a high amount of cash just to be able to get home on the day. It’s worth remembering that flying is still a sort of miracle to many people in the modern world and it’s taken very seriously – not making a flight, for whatever reason, can mean more to some people than to others. I’d suggest that the less one knows about the aviation industry, the more they value the flight, since many questions arise on their part – how do you get home if you’re denied boarding, or miss your flight? What happens? Is there anything can you do about it?

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The situation probably wasn’t the worst part

The man was left bloodied and thrown against the armrest before being dragged off the plane, traumatized to the point where he had his hands bound to the curtain. This was all an unfolding of a situation that the crew didn’t have much time to consider – they didn’t know what to do when they were overbooked, and the passenger raised his voice which could have frazzled the crew. Let me make this really obvious – I’m not condoning the crew’s behaviour and how they were:

  • too lazy to involuntarily deny boarding in the first place
  • not willing to increase the volunteer compensation amount
  • calling the police on a passenger based on their own fault

I can’t even place the blame on the crew here, since Oscar Munoz’s press release just shows exactly how badly the crew was trained.

While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clear picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

The customer “defied” Chicago Aviation Security Officers because he was trying to keep a seat so he could get home. I guess this is a valuable lesson to everyone that there isn’t much you can do once you’re being confronted by police to get off a flight, no matter how astray the situation may sound. It’s not a published rule that you must follow crewmember instructions at all times, but we need to realise that airlines tend to use this rule to defend themselves in all sorts of incidents.

It’s pathetic that the crew let the situation get to this point in the first place. The customer does NOT deserve the blame – he had a confirmed, guaranteed seat on the flight that he had paid for using his own currency, which made him entitled not to volunteer for his seat. It doesn’t matter if he was a doctor trying to return to check on patients whose lives depended on him (which was the case in this instance) – he had every right to keep his seat, no matter who he was, and it was not his fault that he was booted off the aircraft.

I understand that four people were chosen and three of them immediately followed suit and left the aircraft. Those people were going above and beyond to help United out with their system. It wasn’t the doctor that was being uncooperative.

While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go and above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I’m not the first blogger to pick apart this statement, but once again, it is wrong on so many levels. Munoz stated that the crew was going above and beyond to help United’s system so they could get the crew onto their flight as “smoothly” as possible so the flight could be operated to Louisville. At no point in the entire newsletter was it stated that the passenger was left bloodied – that’s not the state you’d expect to be in after booking with United.

The crew was lazy. First of all, they failed to realize that there was a crew that needed to get to Louisville and proceeded to board everyone before going “oh, sh*t”. I’ll let that go – mistakes happen, even with boarding an aircraft. The problem was that the crew decided to remove passengers from the flight in order to accommodate the crew, unhesitant to call the police to remove the passenger’s right to his seat. Calling the cops in the first place was an abuse of power on the crew’s part, as they were using force to right a systematical wrong that was created on their behalf. Say you were in a group project where a teammate refused to do anything, and decided to accuse the rest of your teammates of bullying him when you made him do his part. Is that the brand United wants to be – accusatory?

What is United forgetting?

Looking at the diction in the below points in United’s “recap”:

  • Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
  • Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials

Munoz congratulated the crew for making their operations smoother and letting the aircraft depart as smoothly as possible. He forgot one thing. The customer. Always. Comes. FIRST.

Sure, there are other airlines that may not carry this mentality as a brand, but it gets especially out of hand here when he “defies” crew and security officials to keep his seat onboard the aircraft. At no point was the customer considered in the above points. He was left bloodied and traumatised. I’m not even exaggerating here – he had his arms fixated on the curtain saying “Just kill me. Kill me.”  This passenger was SCREAMING FOR MERCY because he was being removed from a plane. This leaves us wondering if the situation was even handled with the passenger in mind at all. Would there be a next flight departing or were they just going to get him off the flight and call it a day?

Both United and American offered later flights and I’m sure the reaction would’ve been different had the passengers been told so. I’m told the American flight even left with empty seats. Yes, I recognise that booking United passengers on American isn’t exactly great for the company’s reputation, nor would I imagine it would be the easiest solution, but I’m sure it would be easier than having to deal with this. United didn’t even consider rebooking the passengers, or the crew for that matter, on the American flight. Assuming the later United flight was full, couldn’t they just have put their crew on American? Why does the passenger have to be inconvenienced because of a system error?

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Bottom Line

This is more of a rant than anything, but let me just reiterate my key points:

  • It is not in the airline’s position to put the blame on a passenger for overbooking, especially since flying is perceived differently by everyone
  • No matter what happens (and especially in an airline-instigated situation), the customer is always first
  • Getting the police involved is a sign of incompetence and abuse of aviation law on United’s part

Until United issues some sort of a formal apology, I encourage everyone reading to hesitate before booking United, an accusatory, incompetent company that refuses to take the blame under all circumstances. I won’t write much about this incident, as I don’t think there’s much I can add, but these are my two cents.

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