By now the videos have all gone viral. A 69 year old United Airlines passenger being violently removed from his Sunday flight, blood on his face, glasses askew, passengers vocalizing their disgust as he is literally dragged up the aisle and off the plane.
Leggings? Nope. He was not wearing the offensive garment that garnered United such "wonderful" press less than a month ago when they refused to allow a 10 year old to board until she changed clothes. (Yes, I know she was traveling with her family on employee passes. I also know she is TEN YEARS OLD.)
Was he spouting dangerous words like "bomb"? No. Not even close.
His crime was being in his paid for seat when United needed four people to not be so they could accommodate a deadheading employee crew.
That's right, the flight was not even overbooked. It was perfectly booked, perfectly filled by those who had paid for their tickets.
But they decided that their employees took precedence over their paying passengers and called for four volunteers. Vouchers were offered, there were no takers. Vouchers were upped to $800 per person and a hotel stay. Still not enough takers, so United did a random computer pick of passengers and told them to get off.
This man needed to get back to work - doctor at a hospital - every bit as much as United's employees needed to get to their job this morning, however, United's gate agents decided the paying passenger came in second and had him physically removed by airport police. He was knocked unconscious in the process. He then somehow managed to get back on the plane and was removed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital because of his injuries sustained when they wrestled him off the first time knocking his head violently into an armrest.
The video is damning. And there is plenty of it. And it does not matter that United is now trying to hide behind the legalese in the Contract of Carriage - they have ignited yet another public relations dumpster fire and deserve every bit of the outrage coming their way.
Having grown up in this industry and having worked in it as well, I can tell you that, yes, airlines overbook flights. Just like hotels overbook rooms - I worked in that industry as well and HATED working the 3-11 shift at the front desk when all the rooms were filled and a confirmed guest came in at 9 pm only to be told, "Sorry, but we have to walk you to X hotel." (Walk being the terminology for placing a guest at a neighboring facility.) They were never happy and I did not expect them to be.
Overbooking is done because passengers and guests cancel, miss their flights, change their plans at the last minute. It is all about gambling, playing the odds, and hoping you (the airline/hotel) win the roll of the dice. Often the company loses the gamble and all guests show up, expecting their confirmations and money paid to be honored.
When that doesn't happen with an airline, well, let the games begin. Announcements are made, vouchers are offered, and hopefully the needed passengers will step forward and accept what is offered in return for an alternate flight. I have done it, Rudy has done it, our whole family has done it, banking vouchers for future travel.
And that's fine when your travel plans are flexible enough to play the game. You win, the airline wins, life goes on. But sometimes no one is willing or able to alter their travel plans - they have a cruise on the other end of their flight. They have work at the other end of their flight. Perhaps they have a job interview, a loved one in the hospital, show tickets, OR they simply do not wish to take a later flight.
Rule 25 in the Contract of Carriage (that people read as faithfully as they read the iTunes bible of rules thrown at them when they upgrade) states, “If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily.”
This man was not denied boarding. He was already boarded and in his seat.
The "random" computer draw likely bypassed first class passengers and those holding United frequent flyer status, as the CoC also states “in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.” That little line makes things a tad less "random."
So, what happens next?
Well, the local gate agents who decided to pursue this Hunger Games scenario probably did not envision their actions would be recorded and their entire airline would once again be front and center in a PR bloodbath. They, like their airline's lawyers, are standing behind the CoC, trying desperately to spin their actions and deflect from the shitstorm of public ire now aimed at them. (And no, it does not matter that this was a regional carrier - Republic - flying under the United Express brand - passengers book their flight with United, regardless of who the airline contracts to carry them. United owns this entire problem.)
"We followed the right procedures," United spokesman Charlie Hobart said in an interview with the AP. "That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations."
Um, this whole fiasco resulted in the plane's departure being delayed by three hours. Chicago to Louisville, if driven, takes roughly 5 1/2 hours. Perhaps United's better PR move would have been to either avail itself of its code sharing agreements with other airlines and deadhead their crews that way (commonplace), or told the crew to drive. Hell, given the money they are going to lose to settle this quietly with the man who was dragged off, and the mountain of bad PR insuring those who have a choice will choose another airline, they could have gotten a private plane for their crew cheaper than this upcoming outlay.
Their CEO released a completely tone deaf "apology" this morning:
"I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."
It is pretty obvious that your paying passengers did not want to be "re-accommodated" for your employees.
Should the man have tried to get back on the plane? No, at that point he should have been on the phone with the nearest attorney, but he had paid for his seat and had patients to see this morning in Kentucky at his job, which - LISTEN UP, UNITED - IS EVERY BIT AS IMPORTANT AS YOUR EMPLOYEES' JOBS - and emotions were running very high.
Will United "win" with flying colors in this case should it advance to its inevitable litigious state? NO. Not even the Contract of Carriage will save them in the court of public opinion, and that is the court that ultimately matters to their bottom line. The most likely scenario is that they will try to quietly settle this for a large sum and a non-disclosure agreement.
Perhaps this industry, which has successfully monetized every facet of the flying process - from suitcases to seat selection to boxed food - should finally start paying attention to its customers. It is simple, really. We, in good faith, pay for a service - you, in turn, provide said service. We agree to understand situations beyond your control like weather and mechanical delays, you agree to not gamble with the service we paid you to provide.
Because the actual bottom line is this: Without us, you aren't just delayed, you are grounded.