This was the week for United to enjoy as Delta fell into its own PR nightmare with its cancellation issues and the further SkyMiles devaluation. One would think that after #LeggingsGate, United would buckle down and be extremely careful in handling potential PR headaches. Wrong! In came #bumpgate. United’s done it again. Recall 10-second Tom?
I’ll dispense with the details of what happened, as you’ve probably had enough of the story elsewhere. If not, you can get acquainted with the details here, here, and here. Instead, I’ll comment on where United went wrong, yet again, although the passenger should carry A LOT of responsibility for what happened.
From a strictly legal standpoint, it seems like there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what United did. But looking at that video, it looks like actually EVERYTHING is wrong with what they did.
Facts to keep in mind
- The employees that needed to get on the flight were ‘dead headers’. Needed somewhere to avoid a cancellation. As you can imagine, this is urgent for the airline.
- According to rule 25 of their Contract of Carriage, United was within their rights to ‘deny boarding’.
- The passenger should have deplaned when asked. It could be deemed as a federal offense not to. The kind of behavior that the passenger displayed is simply not right. (This doesn’t mean I’m happy he was dragged out and hurt in the process).
How United decides who’s the lucky one or ones that will be denied boarding:
The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment. -Rule 25 A.2.b, Contract of Carriage
Rules vs perception
United consistently ignores how important perception is in their handling of incidents. Aside from governmental mandates, rules are put in place and enforced by the airline. That means that the airline can decide at any given point NOT to enforce it, or at least modify the enforcement.
I spoke to a good friend that is a United airport agent, and here’s her take on the situation:
It obviously wasn’t handled in an appropriate manner. We would never take volunteers to accommodate stand by employees. They must have been “dead headers”, flight crews needed somewhere to avoid a cancellation. The problem is that sometimes they’re booked at the last minute and the airport can’t prepare. It gets ugly quickly if no one wants off. Why he was allowed to board again, no idea.
We try to keep it (the vouchers) within a couple of hundreds of dollars. The thing is that there’s usually a correlation between the length of the trip and the compensation offered. Chicago to Louisville is a little over an hour, so $800 was already an over the top amount. Another thing is that we have to keep in mind (as an airline) that passengers will and can be spoiled. If they got $300 for their past flight, they won’t do it for less, but the flight maybe isn’t as long. I’ve had passengers walk away from me when I tell them them $400 with a “you need me, you’ll be back and offer more” attitude. I’ll give more if I have to but not to him, not if I can help it.
Where United went wrong
- Opting to remove passengers rather than offer vouchers over $800. If this was so urgent, and it was a last minute need to fly a crew to prevent a cancellation, then treat it as such. The airline can take the hit. It shouldn’t be the customer who paid for the ticket. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that anyone would’ve accepted a $5,000 voucher either, but it shows a desire from the airline to work for their customers, rather than against them. Again, perception.
- Allowing all passengers to board before proceeding to remove the four. I’m guessing they were banking hard on some folks volunteering. If this was the case, then that’s on United’s gate agents. There would have been no reason to drag anyone out of the plane if they had never made it into the plane.
Since then United posted a message from CEO Oscar Muñóz here.
It’s unfortunate that it had to come down to dragging a man out of a plane by police. It’s unfortunate that it possibly could’ve been prevented or de-escalated. United is again being chewed on social media, and regardless of the actual effect this has on revenue, it sure doesn’t quite have anything in common with the ‘friendly skies’ motto.
Twice in less than a month. Twice there was a clear lack of insight by the gate agents. United’s short memory does not suit them well.