It gets even worse for United Airlines

Pretty much everyone is now aware of the incident in which airline security personnel forcibly ejected a 69-year year old passenger off a United Airlines flight after he refused to accept their cash offer to give up his seat to allow airline personnel to travel on that flight. The videos of the bloodied passenger being dragged off the plane have gone viral big-time. (If you are one of the few people who are not aware of this and have not seen the videos, see my earlier post.)

The CEO of United made things much worse by a series of ham-handed comments and half-hearted apologies before finally saying what he should have said right at the start and issue a groveling apology. And even this may be perhaps because the airline stock prices took a dive. The airline has also said that they will refund the cost of the tickets of everyone on the flight. They must be wishing that they had simply raised the cash offer to coax people to leave because if they had gone high enough, they would undoubtedly have had enough volunteers and it would have cost them a lot less than what their latest move costs. And of course, they will now have to deal with Dao’s lawsuit that is already underway.

The case has taken on many overtones. Especially damaging to United has been the reaction in China because the airline is the dominant carrier between the US and that nation. The video has been viewed over half a billion times on Weibo, the Chinese social media site. The fact that the passenger is of Asian descent (David Dao is a Vietnamese-American) has been seen as yet another example of racism in the US and of the brutality of its police and security forces towards minority groups, which already had a terrible image even before this incident.

There has been, as usual, the inevitable follow-up. Some media have dragged up unflattering events from Dao’s past, even though it is not relevant. Some have argued that he should have left the plane like the other three passengers who were told to leave. There have been others who have suggested that airlines have the right to remove ticketed passengers even after they have boarded. The airline said that the four passengers who had been identified for removal after they had taken their seats were selected randomly. But that is not strictly true. They use criteria that select based on how valuable you are to them. Yves Smith says that the media have misrepresented the case and sets the records straight on several key facts, adding that “This widespread misreporting has the unfortunate effect of making United’s abuse seem like a disastrous handling of a routine problem when it was much worse than that.”

If it is any consolation for those of us who travel economy class, United even mistreats its first class passengers, as in the case where they threatened to put one of them in handcuffs if they did not leave the plane to make room for a ‘higher priority’ passenger.

[Geoff] Fearns, 59, is president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, an Irvine investment firm that handles more than half a billion dollars in real estate holdings on behalf of public pension funds. He had to fly to Hawaii last week for a business conference.

Fearns needed to return early so he paid about $1,000 for a full-fare, first-class ticket to Los Angeles. He boarded the aircraft at Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai, took his seat and enjoyed a complimentary glass of orange juice while awaiting takeoff.

Then, as Fearns tells it, a United employee rushed onto the aircraft and informed him that he had to get off the plane.

Apparently United had some mechanical troubles with the aircraft scheduled to make the flight. So the carrier swapped out that plane with a slightly smaller one with fewer first-class seats.

Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flier program, gets the boot.

“I understand you might bump people because a flight is full,” Fearns said. “But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.” [My emphasis-MS]

You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

No, you can’t. United Airlines may go out of business at some point but it is going to live forever in business schools where they will use these events as case studies of how not to handle problems.


  1. rgmani says

    Actually what makes it even worse for United is that they don’t seem to followed the rules in their contract of carriage or DOT consumer protection rules.

    1. United’s contract of carriage talks about being denied boarding due to an oversold flight. It is not at all clear that those rules apply here. Dr. Dao was not denied boarding -- he was already boarded. The flight was not oversold -- it was full and they needed room for United employees. United’s contract of carriage says nothing about removing you once boarded or about offloading you to make space of airline employees.

    2. The DOT rules regarding Involuntary bumping also don’t seem to have been followed. Dr. Dao should have been given an explanation in writing for why he was being removed and the procedure that the airline followed in deciding who got bumped. He was also entitled to ask for compensation in cash of four times his ticket price up to a maximum of $1350. I don’t believe cash compensation was offered either.

    Here are links to the relevant documents

    If the CEO of the company isn’t forced out by the time this ends, I’ll be pretty surprised.

    -- RM

  2. Holms says

    Cash compensation had been offered, but they only got as far as $800 before getting impatient and booting people via random selection.

  3. lanir says

    I knew someone that worked at a network ops center for United a few years back. As you might imagine they have tons of monitoring going on to follow flights, delays, technical problems, cancellations, what shows on their designated screens at airports, etc. If technical problems arise, they alert the right parties. If it looks like it will cause any significant delay, I believe the next step is to start a call bridge. If a plane is grounded, the procedure steps up to calling the CEO (in the middle of the night if necessary) to let him know what’s going on. Because a grounded plane easily becomes national news and the company wants the CEO to know about it before he reads it in the papers.

    With all that in place it’s safe to say it’s unlikely the CEO was blindsided by the problem when he first reacted to it. The first reaction was likely their considered remarks on the topic and not something improvised on the fly. So if the CEO is fired, that’s why.

  4. KG says

    Reginal Selkirk@2,

    I expect the scorpion was a particularly valued customer, and so had the right to sting any other passenger occupying its chosen seat.

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