How United's Handling of the Dragged Passenger May Change How Customers React - Running with Miles
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How United’s Handling of the Dragged Passenger May Change How Customers React

45 United Miles Per Dollar
Written by Charlie

United Airlines made news with how they handled a situation that ended with a dragged passenger off the plane. How will this affect customers going forward?

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I am sure you have heard or even seen by now the video of what happened to a United passenger on Sunday evening. The video clip is below but to summarize what we now know, here are the quick details:

  • United Airlines flight (operated by Republic Airways) 3411 from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday evening (April 9th)
  • United says it was an overbooked situation – they needed to transport crew members to Louisville for a flight (4)
  • United offered all customers onboard $400 and then $800 and a hotel to get off the plane
  • After no one accepted, United agents boarded and said that the computer would randomly select 4 passengers that would be required to disembark
  • According to reports, the first 3 random passengers got off the plane (and would have been refunded according to the laws regarding this situation known as IDB – involuntarily denied boarding)
  • The 4th passenger was a gentleman who said he was a doctor and had patients waiting for him in the morning. When they said he had to get off, he said he was calling his lawyer.
  • United had called aviation police who boarded and can be seen in the video below. They pulled the man out from his seat and dragged him out of the plane.
  • Somehow, the passenger was able to get back on the plane, insisting he had to leave
  • The flight was delayed for 2 hours and the aviation police officer was suspended pending an investigation

How United’s Handling of the Dragged Passenger May Change How Customers React

Ok, so those above are the “facts” as we know them from witnesses and reports. A pretty scary situation for all of those onboard and I am sure a traumatic one for the passenger who was dragged off the plane. While everyone is hearing the stories and reports now that say that United has the law on their side when handling such situations (though certainly not bloodying a passenger), I am sure most people never actually thought they would see something like this take place.

Passengers Forcibly Removed

Passenger forcibly removed for making bomb threats or even jokes? Yep, no one has a problem there. Passenger forcibly removed for screaming and making inappropriate remarks/threats onboard? Yep, we have seen that as well. Even passengers who the captain feels uncomfortable flying with due to behavior observed have been forced to leave the plane.

As people are finding out now, it goes into the hands of the captain when the passengers are on the plane. If a captain does not feel comfortable with certain passengers/situations, he can request that they be escorted off the plane. The job of securing the safety of the aircraft and its passengers is in the captain’s hands and they can make calls about situations they feel threaten that safety.

What Is The Right Solution/Protocol For This Situation?

So, what will happen going forward now? What is the proper protocol for handling a passenger who refuses to get off the plane – especially when he makes a legitimate excuse to stay onboard? I’m sure many people would suggest that the United ground control staff offer him transportation to Louisville (under a 5 hour drive from Chicago) as well as the reimbursement he would be entitled to or even more to make it worthwhile for him to leave the plane.

But, what would that have said to the 3 passengers who did follow the instructions to leave the plane? Hold out longer next time and refuse to get off in hope of a better offer? Or, make up some excuse that sounds plausible as to why you need to be at your destination (I am not saying this passenger did that but there is really not a way to confirm what passengers say without it taking a long time and delaying the flight).

Higher “Bump” Compensation

United could have likely avoided what has become a very bad PR scene by taking the amount much higher. Offering vouchers is not really that big of a deal for an airline and bumping it up to even $1,600 would not have been a huge deal – certainly cheaper than what it is costing United now.

In fact, Delta was handing out $1,350 in American Express gift cards to passengers last week – with one family pulling in a total of $11,000 in funds before just deciding to stay home and not make the trip! So, United would not have been making themselves a target for passengers seeking compensation for bumps by offering much more. After all, it was United that needed to get these crew members to Louisville.

How Will Customers React Going Forward?

But, how will this event change the reaction of customers from this point forward? Will there be a fear whenever airline agents say that they will have to take passengers off the plane for things like overbooked situations or weight issues? Will airlines actually be able to get away with offering less for voluntary bumps because passengers will be afraid of what will happen if they refuse to take the voluntary bump – especially if there are police officers nearby?

Oversold Situation Fear

This has become such a huge story that I think it will absolutely affect passengers in how they react to these oversold situations. Since the airlines use algorithms to decide on things like involuntary removal (which are based on things like fare class, price paid, time of check-in, elite status, etc), many casual passengers will not have a clue if they may be the ones that will be forced to get off the plane. It will bring a certain element of fear to passengers, I believe.

Refusal to Move?

But, it could also go the other way with some passengers. There are many citizens who believe that issues should be stood up for to affect change and this may even make its way into situations like this. There may be passengers that will stand their ground and force airport police to come up with different ways of forcibly removing passengers.

Takeaway

However, at the end of the day, I believe that this situation has been a very bad one for United – no matter how much they believe they did things by the book and by the law. What could have been solved by the gate agents instead became escalated into a national story and will undoubtedly change how people deal with United. As we go into the heavy summer travel season (which will surely see many overbooked situations), I think passengers will be reacting very differently to these oversold situations, some out of fear and some out of a desire to change how these things end up.

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About the author

Charlie

Charlie has been an avid traveler and runner for many years. He has run in marathons around the world for less than it would cost to travel to the next town - all as a result of collecting and using miles and points. Over the years, he has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and collected millions of miles and points.
Now he uses this experience and knowledge to help others through Running with Miles.

11 Comments

  • The fear will rest in police officers who are called to remove an uncooperative passenger, in a cramped plane, with everybody taking a cell phone video.

    I’m not saying the cop was innocent (he obviously used excessive force) , but he’ll be found innocent. If he’s found guilty (or possibly even charged), United can blame (read: sue) him and his department for causing the bad PR and losing revenue.

    • And that fear should rest on EVERY police officer. Tell me how you feel as the passenger in these two difference scenarios:

      Scenario 1

      Officer: Sir, you’ve been asked to deplane. You are failing to comply with the orders given by a member of the flight crew and are violating US law blah, blah, blah. If you do not voluntarily leave the plane we will be forced to forcefully remove you and arrest you.

      Scenario 2

      Officer: Hey, I’m on your side on this, buddy. But they have a legal right to ask you to deplane. Let’s just get off the plane, we’ll help you get another flight, and you can call your lawyer and find out what legal options you have available.

      Officer (to flight crew): When is the next flight you can put this man on? Can you get him on a different airline? You guys will bump him to first class, right?

      Officer: See, we’ll get you taken care of, buddy. We’ll do everything we can to make sure you get back home as quickly as possible.

      • I agree, and as you mentioned in your other comment, the problem is systemic. The role of cops should be to respond to a situation (i.e. passenger not obeying crew’s orders); however, it’s pretty obvious they were called in this instance to perform a specific task (i.e. “we have a passenger that needs to be removed”). The solution is a broader reform where officers act as arbiters instead of “muscle”.

  • I’m so over this situation. That guy is a d-bag and doesn’t deserve anything. First, because he is a “doctor” somehow he is more important that everyone else on the plane? Ummm, no. Second, please call your lawyer. I am sure that any barred attorney would tell their client to get off the plane immediately. Third, acting like a child and screaming because you didn’t get your way isn’t the way things are done in the United States. He caused 90% of the situation.

    I hope that the police charge this man with a crime for refusing to comply with lawful commands.

    • “He caused 90% of the situation.”, False. United caused 100% of the situation. They sold him a product, boarded him, then tried to “re-accommodate” him (their words) by having rent-a-cops forcefully bloody him and drag him off the plane.

      Also, It was their employees who they were trying to board on the flight. If it was so mission critical to get these employees to Louisville, there were plenty of other flights and rental car companies at ORD (Louisville is about a 4.5 hours drive from Chicago).

      How the government just sits idly by while airlines continue to sell more seats then they have available is a mystery to me. It’s blatant fraud. If I don’t show up for my flight, they take my money anyway so why should they get to sell that seat to someone else? In any other industry, that is called fraud.

    • Um, actually, he is more important. Like it or not, there are members of society that are more important and valued than others. We are not all equal.

  • Unfortunately, the lesson learned here is that the state of travel (at least) in the US is very poor. Everything about this seems to indicate that United was more concerned about being right than doing what was right. Instead of coming to a amicable solution, they seemed to do the bare minimum and assert the airline’s legal rights.

    As you said, they could have upped the money offered. But they didn’t.

    They could have also found a flight on another airline, booked their own crew on that flight, rather than forcing passengers off. But they didn’t.

    Unfortunately, as is all too common these days, it seems like United went for the nuclear option very hastily. They called in airport security rather than trying to arrive at a solution one of the passengers would have found satisfactory. You ask what they do about the other 3 people who deplaned? Well, IMHO, they should have found volunteers in the first place. Once you start forcing people to deplane against their will, you’ve already sort of upped the stakes. Now if you have someone who doesn’t wish to deplane and is willing to stand their ground you’ve created an escalated situation where you have limited options and will likely need to further escalate the situation to regain control.

    And that is exactly what happened when airport security was called. Obviously the hope was that by using a show of force from law enforcement they could bully their position.

    Unfortunately for all involved, law enforcement is not as well versed in de-escalation as their foreign counterparts or even compared to how law enforcement used to conduct themselves a few decades ago. They all looked young enough where most of, if not all of their career, has trained them to view any failure to comply as a threat and they acted, unfortunately, as one might expect.

    Ironically, a good cop would have been able to shame United into a compromise. Like saying very loudly, “This is a doctor who has to get back home for medical reasons. Well, I’m sure United will put you in first class on the next flight, no matter what airline, am I right? You’ll do that for this man, right?”

    This is one of many areas I fault the flight crew. They should have thought this through more than one step at a time. What if he doesn’t comply and now you’ve got a plane full of people will cameras posting the results on YouTube? What if we randomly select four passengers to deplane and they get confrontational on a plane filled with people with cameras and this ends up getting posted on YouTube?

    Ultimately, this is what happens when you train your law enforcement to view non-compliance as a threat and when air crew have been repeatedly had it drilled into their head that any failure to comply with the flight crew is a felony that they can wield over passengers for any reason.

    And yes, I’ve seen flight crew make threats before. I’ve even seen flight crew issue that as a warning over the intercom to someone who was waiting for the restroom after being asked to return to his seat because the seatbelt light had come on.

    We don’t teach people how to de-escalate properly. United was within their legal rights and obviously the flight crew decided that their legal rights and the fact that failing to comply with their directions was a criminal offense were the power they needed to resolve the situation. IMHO not enough was done to de-escalate the situation and bring about a solution that none of us would be reading about right now.

  • “Escalated to a national story”, that is too diplomatic; Make it an international very well known incident.

    Jokes abound and deep sympathy goes to whomever pays for a service and gets beaten and injured, when not getting it.

    Shameful by any rule.

  • I am appalled by this. I’ve flown millions of miles as a passenger and even more as a pilot but that would be in flight hours rather than miles. I never had an interest in being a commercial airline pilot and with the state of commercial aviation descending into this type of chaos I am so glad I didn’t.

    This was just wrong on so many levels. I think many of the comments have been spot on. These videos will NEVER go away and United has a self-inflicted black eye that will take a long time, if ever, to heal. I can tell you I’ll never step on a flight with them now. I have over 1 million miles with Lufthansa and used to fly a lot of United metal but they are off my list now.

    So while the passenger should have left their seat voluntarily, I don’t think United did all they could have in the first place. I am sure this will head to the courts as some point. Then it will be played out in the national media even longer. United should have offered the max they could have to avoid something like this. This incident will cost them millions in the long run.

    I can see the new United slogan. It used to be flying the friendly skies. Now it will be something along the lines of “Fly United – the unfriendly skies, where if you don’t comply with our wishes, we’ll beat the crap out of you!”

    If they didn’t have everything so over booked it would be an issue. Delta is in the same mess. I was caught last week multiple times in the Delta mess. One day I spent 12 hours in ATL. Another day I was at one airport at 1pm. I didn’t get home until the following day at 8pm. Way to go Delta! Your app was worthless and a call to your Diamond support took almost 2 hours to get a call back!!!!

  • Economist David Wessel’s twitter feed links to a PBS story about Delta’s policy. Delta asks what your minimum price would be to get bumped. This is done on the kiosk screen when you check in. Since I live in a Delta hub, I usually choose a high value option, but there are always people who have more time who are happy with less money. Read the story on pbs.org.

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