United Airlines is in deep PR trouble (at the very least) today after a video taken from the inside of one of its planes started to circulate on social media. Basically, they had a full plane, and wanted four passengers off it to make room for crew on standby. When they got no volunteers, they started involuntary offloading. One of the passengers refused to volunteer (this sentence hurts) and so security/police were called. The video shows very clearly that the passenger, a paying passenger, was manhandled in the process. I’m not linking to the video and no doubt when I read this in 5 years, it’ll be gone. But I have some comments.
Overbooking is a fact of life in the airline trade. A lot of work goes into balancing it to ensure you book enough people to have a full plane and not so many such that you wind up paying a lot of compensation. Most flights have a few no shows. But I’m not happy with United’s explanation of the flight being overbooked. If you’re overbooked, you’re usually looking for the offloads at check in. You don’t want to be giving passengers boarding passes if you’re not going to be flying them. There are security ramifications for that too. Much better to get passengers to voluntarily offload at check in and do not check them in in the first place. As United were pulling people off the plane, then under normal circumstances you’d have to assume the passengers were paid up and checked in.
If they were looking to position crew for any reason to another airline they need to reserve the seats rather than assume standby will work. I worked in the airline trade for more than ten years. If I had business travel I had a reserved seat (still had the possibility of being bumped off in an overbooking scenario but at least there was recognition that the seat had to be booked and checked in). What didn’t happen in my experience is that paying passengers got bumped off a flight for paying passengers. It looks like in this case, seats were not reserved and the United staff were not checked in. And the passengers were on the plane when United gate staff and cabin staff came to try and get four passengers off the plane to make room for the four United staff that suddenly needed to fly.
So, in the first place, paying passengers should not be the target of being offloaded to make room for non-revenue passengers. If it happens in United regularly they need to start being a bit more organised about booking their crew if they need to be moved from one airport to the next.
However, even if it ever was acceptable to bump paying passengers – you know the ones who support the salaries of United staff up to and including their CX – it certainly isn’t acceptable to get someone to manhandle them off the plane such that the passenger winds up injured in some respect. I’ve seen comments that he “refused to obey the cabin crew” and arguably this could be seen as true. But the instructions he was refusing to obey should not have been made.
In general, we need passengers to comply with instructions for safety reasons. Assume we’re in a situation where we need to clear a plane because, oh it has landed on the Hudson or something. As such we need airlines not to be abusing the requirement to have passengers comply unquestioningly with crew instructions because frankly, there needs to be good reasons for those instructions. Four of our staff need your seat is not a good reason. And it damages the relationship between airlines and their customers and breaks down the trust. That affects all airlines, not just United. Instructions from cabin crew given the context that they are entitled to absolute obedience under law need to be reasonable. It seems to me that no one in United on the occasion appeared to question why paying passengers should be dumped for staff which leads me to wonder if it is a frequent occurrence. Either way, the right to unquestioned compliance has a corresponding responsibility that the right not be abused.
The fall out for United Airlines around this is substantial. Significant numbers of the public are making it clear that they do not ever again want to fly with United. It is unknown what settlement the passenger concerned will feel motivated to come to and if United’s lawyers are any bit sensible at all, they will want to settle rather than go to court. But it should never have come to here because United should not be bumping paying passengers off their airplanes for the benefit of non-revenue staff.