Monday, April 10, 2017

After Yesterday, Do You Want to Fly United?

The Friendly Skies? 

By now, everyone has likely seen the pictures of a passenger being hauled bodily off an overbooked United flight, after the Chicago Department of Aviation security officer smashed his face onto a seat arm and bloodied him.

(Here, I've edited out the center of the photo by Audra D. Bridges from SFGATE )  The flight was a short hop, from Chicago O'Hare to Louisville, Kentucky.  The passenger, whose identity has not been released, was returning from a quick trip to Japan to see the cherry blossoms, and was saying that he's a doctor who was scheduled to see patients this morning so he couldn't voluntarily give up his seat.  United overbooked the flight, and here's the kicker, was going to need four seats to fly a United crew to Louisville.  That's right, they were giving up paying seats and paying a premium to anyone who took the offer so that they could fly staff.  Poor planning, anyone?

The root cause here is an antiquated process the airlines used called overbooking, which means exactly what it sounds like.  Airlines used to have a problem with under-utilization of the aircraft; people who buy a seat but don't show up.  I suppose in some halcyon old days, there were ways to get a refund if someone didn't use the seat, but I'm rather certain those days are long gone.  I know every time I've gone shopping for tickets for a flight, they tell you it's a non-refundable seat.  It's the cheapest.  You can pay more for a refundable seat. 

According to SFGATE:
At 5:40 p.m., a flight attendant requested four volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for $400 each.

“No one wanted to take the voucher because they told us the next flight would be at 2 pm the next day,” [Tyler] Bridges, a civil engineer, told The Chronicle.

United doubled the offer to $800 — and no one budged.
Again, once or twice in my travels I've been given an offer like that, but only on the way out; when not showing up would cost me hotel fare for the night, and a rental car expense.  Never on the way home, when I generally have the flexibility to be delayed a day.  As the day has gone by and everyone has reported on this story, I've heard stories of cases others say they witnessed, including Delta giving a family of three $1350 each for their seats, paying for a hotel room and transportation - roughly $4300.  I'd take that offer even on the way out, if it didn't impact anyone I was going to meet.

The problem here has a couple of aspects.  First: the whole antiquated overbooking phenomenon.  In what other venue can you buy a product, pay for it, and be denied it?  If you buy a flat screen TV and walk it out to your car, Walmart can't come up to you and take it back because they also sold it to someone else.  Maybe a better analogy is sports.  People will buy a season ticket to see their favorite team and not go to the game.  Either way, there's a finite number of seats that need to be sold for a certain date.  If the buyer doesn't show up nobody else gets that seat.  They don't sell the seat to two buyers and figure "we'll deal with it if they both show up".  If you don't go, you forfeit your seat.  Why isn't airplane seat the same? Why would they overbook in the first place?  Today, they have computerized systems tracking demand for seats that tell them on a flight-by-flight, seat-by-seat basis what the demand is and adjusting the prices moment by moment.   Sell the number of seats on the plane and then stop

The other aspect is that in the name of airline safety we've made the airlines immune to prosecution for this sort of insanity.  It's a violation of federal law to disobey the orders of the flight crew.  And that's totally ignoring TSA, Air Marshals and the rest of the security kabuki.  In the air, that has a certain sense to it.  Airplanes have a restricted set of conditions they can fly in (their "envelope"), and someone has to be in command.  If the pilot tells the passengers to do something, they'd generally better do it.  On the ground, overbooking the flight and telling some passengers they have to get off the airplane or they'll be bodily subdued and taken off that airplane is seriously wrong.

In the end, this will be forgotten within a day or so. Back to the SFGATE article:
United Airlines spokesman Jonathan Guerin said, “We’re reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him. We know that this is upsetting to all of our customers.”

Chris McGinnis, a travel writer who writes the blog, called the matter a “PR nightmare. It’s shocking and appalling and abhorrent to anyone seeing the video.”

At the same time, he said, “Everyone will be all up in arms and say they’re going to boycott United — but travelers have very short memories. So the next time United has a flight for $139, and everyone else is selling it for $189, they’ll forget about the boycott.”
Typical short attention span?  Outrage of the day?   Remember: United was at the center of a PR storm just two weeks ago for barring the children of employees from boarding an airplane on those free tickets while wearing leggings.  Did you remember it was United?  I didn't. 

How do we get real reform here?  How do we get the airlines to stop overbooking and stop bodily throwing people of planes?  According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, United Airlines bumped 3,765 passengers in 2016, or less than half a percent — involuntarily.  The report says 40,629 passengers on 12 airlines were involuntarily bumped.  In my mind, if they think they're losing money at it, they'll stop.  After all, remember that often-repeated story about a company removing one olive out of every salad they served (back in 1987, in first class alone) and doing it to save $50,000 a year?  That was an airline: American Airlines.  If they lose enough seats every year, and have a way to track the sales they didn't make because of this, they'll change. 


  1. I will never fly those jerks. United sucks. Plus they break guitars.

    my favorite United story, personally observed. - they have managed to reduce leg room to Torquemada levels of discomfort, and have an enhanced fare to regain a tiny bit of solace. So on this long flight, mysteriously half full or less, a tall guy asks if he can move up to one of the UNOCCUPIED seats with a bit more room. The flight attendant apologizes,says he is not allowed to. "I'll pay for it. Here's my card".
    "I'm sorry sir, you have to purchase the extra legroom seat at the gate, you can do that next time. (very loudly) "Lady, there is not going to be a "next time".

  2. $800 x 4 seats = $3200.

    I have a feeling this fiasco is going to cost them at least 10 or 20 times that amount....

    If I were him I'd sue the living snot out of them.

    1. As of now, United has lost $900 MILLION as stocks tumble. So you're off by over a factor of 10.

      I'm sure United will settle out of court for a few million dollars, because 1) they want this over with and 2) the cell phone footage is damning. But it still won't compare to their stock losses.

      At this point, it would have literally been cheaper for United to have *bought another airline company* to fly their four crewmembers to Louisville.

  3. I retired from a cargo airline that had the same rules as all the other airlines. United screwed this up from the get go. First this is the company that had employees jumpseating about two weeks ago that were wearing inappropriate attire for the flight. This shows an employee problem AND a management problem. Jumpseaters have to take a jumpseat test in order to show they know the rules of dress and decorum. Even crew jumpseaters have to follow these rules and among these is the necessity to book your flight about two days ahead of time and to also check into the airport crew desk well before the flight in order to have the flying crew know you are on the manifest. If all of this had been done correctly no one would have been seated on the aircraft before the jumpseat crewmembers. All these rules were violated...they didn't just drop the ball, they tripped over it and then kicked it out of bounds when they got the cops involved. Whoever manages this people needs a demotion and the employees involved need multiple days off without pay to reconsider their behavior. In spite of passengers needing to follow rules it is also the responsibility of employees to refuse to double down on stupid and look like total incompetents to the public. Use a company corporate plane to move crew rather than ruin thousands of dollars in reputation and looking incompetent...a complete PR disaster. indyjonesouthere

  4. While it's true that any company will change their policies if they have hard evidence said policies cost them real money some things are very difficult to track. One of those things is how much money you DID NOT EARN because customers chose an alternative due to bad service. I have spent decades in healthcare....radiology specifically. It's not uncommon to have to deal with a lack of qualified staff to perform radiographic procedures because bean counters and BS artists in administration (people who have never touched a patient in their entire life) dictate staffing levels based on fantasy and wishful thinking. When this happens it is not uncommon for PAYING outpatients to be forced to wait while the staff valiantly struggles to deal with emergency room patients and other such exams that take precedence. And since the system is designed to give productivity numbers for exams performed there is no way to know how many of those patients who walked in and waited for their exam got tired of waiting and left. If the exam wasn't done the patient never existed as far as the bean counters are concerned. And then they wonder why the hell profits are down even though numbers are's because they drove the PAYING patients away. This type of short sighted incompetence is common in America.
    We just saw a MASSIVE display of it in this incident in Chicago, and United will never know how many people in the future will NEVER fly with them due to having heard about this insane incident.

    1. Amen Brother! I was a nurse for 20 years and got out. I was very tired of maximizing profit over patient care. I have told those same BS admin and bean counters to put up or shut up and told them to spend some time taking care of patients themselves. I suspect if they did we would not only be fully staffed but every nurse and Specialist like you would have two Nurses Aides to assist on every shift...

  5. Apparently, this was a case where United was flying a flight crew to Louisville to relive another crew who was into their mandatory rest period. The right way to handle it is to up the offer until people voluntarily take it, not call the cops to come and beat the crap out of them. I cannot approve of an airline throwing you off the plane once you have paid for a seat. What if missing that flight costs you several thousands of dollars, or costs you a once in a lifetime opportunity, like attending your Father's funeral?
    As far as the case with the leggings goes: I am with United on this one. I have flown free on employee tickets before, and they have a dress code that they plainly tell you about when you get the tickets. Abiding by a dress code, whether you agree with that dress code or not, is a small price to pay for free tickets. Don't like the dress code? Pay for your own tickets.

  6. You want change? I hope this doctor who was so violated by these airline thugs sues the shit out of United and winds up owning the company. Then 'he' can institute some real change. The jerk CEO trying to justify airline actions should be sacked immediately by the BOD. But in the end, the "customer" should win big time!

    1. According the the Feds, the airline cannot be sued. All the airline is on the hook for is four times the value of the ticket, or $1350, whichever is less.

    2. The airline fine print limits their costs for civil damages resulting from failing to honor their contract to transport
      you from point A to B. Once they willfully enlisted armed to
      assault a man already seated on the plane to remove him by force
      they crossed a line. If the tell you at the counter your seat isn't available your recourse is contractually limited. If the give you a ticket and put you in a seat they have lost the right to "bump" you..... I suspect that in this case United will settle any lawsuits as the odds of convincing a jury they did nothing wrong is vanishingly small. Once this man was ticketed and seated the airline lost their right to "bump" him. I hope the victim sues and the award costs United enough to force an entirely new management structure.

    3. First of all it was a Chicago policeman who dragged the man off the plane not the airline. The problem is more complex than a casual viewing would lead you to believe. The airline has to get the pilots and crew (those four airline employees) to another airport to fly a plane. The law forces them to get the plane off the ground within a reasonable time from the schedule. So the airline had no choice four passengers had to be bumped. Then the airline also had to get this plane off the ground with every passenger in a seat and on time so once the passenger refused to follow the crews request the airline had to call the police. The police too have no other choice. After asking then demanding that the passenger comply they had to forcibly remove him. Standing there in a Mexican standoff was not an option. The passenger was wrong, simple as that. Time was of the essence. I will agree that with three police there it seems like the passenger could have been removed without bloodshed but again that was the passengers choice.

    4. And all of this could have been avoided by not overselling the flight.

      I mean c'mon...the computers with the crew work schedules don't talk to the computers with the bookings?

      This should be a no-brainer to coordinate the crew schedules with the seats sold so they have a number of seats "on standby" that can either be used by crew, or sold when not needed.

    5. Not that simple. Unexpected delays can without notice take an entire flight crew out of the game for a mandatory rest period and if the airlines do not get a flight crew there ti take off on time there are mandated penalties.

      I actually would not have a problem with ending over booking and increasing fares to make up the difference.

    6. I haven't watched the video, but bouncing the victim's face off of an arm rest is hardly acceptable behavior, even if the man was refusing a legal order to exit the aircraft. However, in this wondeful world we live in, trying to sue either a police officer or an airline - even if egregiously at fault - is an exercise in futility. If the officer had _shot_ the victim, he still would have been granted immunity from prosecution, as we have seen in hundreds of police shootings (and I am not referring to Ferguson, etc.) of whites as well as other races. I'm a former peace officer, and I don't hate cops, just the fact that so many bad apples have been allowed to go without suffering any consequences after killing and/or abusing citizens they were hired to protect (AND their pets).

  7. How do we get real reform here?

    I don't expect much objection from people who are already willing to put up with the TSA. That famous autistic woman may have designed the cattle chutes for the passengers, mostly they work because any momentary fear doesn't escalate to effective defensive action.

  8. While I agree it looks bad what other choice do the police have? Their job at that point is to ask this man to leave and if he refuses a lawful order to remove him. Their job isn't to explain the rules to him or argue with him for half an hour. As for the airlines I would agree that they need a better system so that they can avoid this in the future but they too were in a no win situation. As I understand it 4 people had to be removed to allow four flight crew to make it to their next assignment. What are the choices? That the airlines doesn't make the effort to get pilots and crew at the airport in time for the plane to take off???

    Perhaps someone will argue that this man didn't understand but somehow I suspect that if he was on a plane in China or North Korea and the police told him to stand up and walk out he would understand that clear as crystal. So I think he was playing off of the sympathy he was getting from the other passengers.

    And the other passengers shouldn't be vocally supporting him or in any way making it all worse. The simple fact is that you are on THEIR plane and when they ask you to leave you must leave and if you do not the the police must remove you. Why whine and boo the police? Take the videos, talk to the cable news shows afterwards and speak out then but don't make it worse by acting out in the plane.

    1. The airline had choices. They could have offered more and more money, someone would have eventually taken it. What other industry is allowed to sell more product than they produce, and then come and take it away for their own convenience?
      Imagine if a car dealership did this- they come and repo your car because the dealership's manager wants to drive it.
      Their plane or not, they opened it to the public. Once you do that, certain ownership rights are surrendered.

    2. They can't simply offer more money there is a law restricting how much they can offer. They had to (as in under penalty of law) get their staff to the other airport so that a different plane could be manned and takeoff on time (again mandated by law). They had to remove the excess passenger so that this plane could take off on time (or no later then allowed by law) so they could not sit and argue with this man. AND last, the stewardess can't eject the recalcitrant passenger so the airline had no choice but to call in the airport police and it was they who choose to call in the somewhat more violent Chicago police. So where did they have a choice???

    3. That isn't true. The law limits their liability, but that doesn't mean that they are prohibited from voluntarily offering more. That is the problem here that illustrates United's greed: They knew that they did not HAVE to pay more than $1350, so they decided that using the cops to enforce a civil contract was cheaper than doing the right thing and paying the guy what he was going to lose by missing work.

    4. Also, while it may be the law that the plane in Louisville be manned by a fresh crew, but there is no law that says they had to go on THAT flight. They could have gone on another airline, rented a car, or gone by bus. It is unconscionable that a passenger who had paid and was already aboard should have to shoulder the liability and responsibility for an airline that cannot schedule and plan to get their employees to work on time.

    5. That's the part that hardly ever gets mentioned. United is so used to thinking they'd use their biggest resources to get the crew to Louisville - airline seats - that they didn't think to hire a car and drive them there. Yeah, it's a five hour drive, but that's a planning exercise. Which United appears to be failing.

      It would cost United some money. Undoubtedly a tiny fraction of what this episode is costing them.

      Once someone is on the plane, in their seat, there's simply no excuse for what they did. Epic idiocy in the airport terminal staff.

    6. Sorry! Still disagree. No matter how much rationalization you apply the simple fact remains that sometime the airlinnes must bump some passengers. AND most importantly the passengers must obey the air crew and to allow the passenger to veto the air crew is as stupid an idea as I have ever heard. Once the air crew says you must deplane the passenger is wrong, possibly criminally wrong to stay in their seat.

      IMHO what every airline should do in the future is: When a passenger is asked to leave and they do not, they should require all passengers leave the plane taking their carry on luggage with them. Then all the passengers sit in the waiting area until the recalcitrant passenger leaves. If it takes hours or days it will be better for the airlines.

    7. And I still disagree with this, sometime the airlines must bump some passengers.

      I think the whole practice of overbooking is antiquated and a product of times that don't exist anymore. With today's fare structures and computerized ticketing, it's a relic. We don't allow the NFL or NBA to sell game tickets twice, but isn't that just like the "if the airplane's seats aren't full, we're losing money?" If the game seats aren't sold, they lose money. Again, every airline ticket I ever buy says it's non-refundable. You either sit in the seat or it goes empty.

      In this case, United found out they needed to fly four crew members to Louisville. Their mistake. They could charter a plane, buy them tickets on a competitor, hire a limousine, any number of alternatives, but instead they went for the false economy of kicking people off the plane because they could.

    8. "Playing off the sympathy of the other passengers"? How about the old USA tradition of getting what you paid for? Isn't that a reasonable expectation? Being singled out at random (or whatever method the cabin staff used to choose who would be forced off) would yank my chain, too. It was poorly handled, and the fact that he was injured _should_ be grounds for tort, but because our government regulates - as well as subsidizes with _our_ tax money - the airlines, it probably won't fly (pun intended).

      United has always sucked, and their lower fares weren't worth their bad customer service, late arrivals causing missed flights, and other hassles. I stopped flying with them long before I stopped flying due to TSA back in 2000.

  9. Sexy Stew: "Sir, we are about to depart the terminal - as soon as the commotion up front has stopped. All cell phones must be turned off."
    Mad Jack: "Hold your gin, Sweetheart. I'll only be a minute..."
    SS: "Sir! That means your cell phone too!"
    MJ: "Patience, my dear. Patience... I'm texting my broker."
    SS: "That doesn't matter, Sir. Rules clearly state that - what now? Who are you texting?"
    MJ: "My broker. I'm telling him to short the shit out of United Air."
    SS: "Ah... would you like an upgrade to first class, complete with special VIP package? I'm sure we could manage that, if you'd be so good as to short a few shares for me as well."
    MJ: "Sure thing. Mile High Club, here I come."

  10. There is no evidence this was the result of over booking.

    However I tend to agree with your "solution". But it would be unfair to allow some airlines to not follow your suggestion. So the government should regulate and prevent over booking for all airlines and simply raise the fares accordingly.