This past week, we were all reminded how stressful flying has become in the past few years. If invasive TSA checks and minimal leg space weren’t enough of a deterrent, this week’s story about a passenger forcibly dragged out of a United plane may change some people’s perspectives. Clearly, there will be multiple investigations and lawsuits to determine what went wrong on that flight.
As in most cases, there are good, bad and ugly sides to this story. But especially relevant is the question of how companies and passengers can prevent an incident like this from happening again.
For those who missed it: Last Sunday, April 9, a paying sixty-nine-year-old doctor was dragged by security through the aisles of a United airplane. The story nicknamed #draggate unfolded on United Airlines’ Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. Apparently, the passenger’s only offense was his refusal to deplane and surrender his seat to a United staff member.
A fast learner in the travel industry, Delta Airlines reacted to the story by creating its own PR buzz. As a result of the United scandal, it announced it will offer higher compensation to entice passengers to give up seats voluntarily on overbooked flights.
Until this week Delta’s gate agents could provide up to $800 in coupons while supervisors could up that to $2,000. Now, the company upped the ante and efficiently increased compensation limits for voluntary denied boarding to almost ten grand! Per person!
Clearly, the company understood the necessity of giving its staff leeway to make case-by-case decisions keeping the company out of trouble and its customers happy.
Hats off to Delta!
In the past, we’ve all heard of passengers taken off after challenging or aggressive behavior but never for the purpose of letting others, in this case, United staff take their place.
Apparently, the flight crew asked for passengers to voluntarily get off after the flight was overbooked. In this case, though the airline offered $800, no one took them up on it. Why didn’t they go higher? No one knows for sure but I’m pretty sure someone regrets not doing so.
This passenger (one of four chosen randomly by the computer ) was asked to leave and refused. The crew, in the act of desperation or just following protocol blindly, threw the book at him. They called the airport police to remove him by force. Did he threaten to harm anyone? Not according to an aircraft filled with witnesses. In fact, he was recorded saying he only wanted to go home.
What most people missed in this saga was that the airline was lucky only one person was injured. In fact, dragging an individual from a tight plane seat could have resulted in more than one passenger injured!
One elderly doctor with broken nose,broken front teeth and concussion.
A plane full of traumatized eyewitnesses.
Social media viral story on both national and international fronts.
All this over a seat!
Some could argue that watching the video of the bloodied passenger was ugly enough. However, the PR fiasco only intensified. From the CEO’s letter defending his staff, the public outcry to boycott the company and the drop in stock price the story only got uglier.
The Rules Today
Technically, the airline has every right to refuse service and get passengers off for many reasons. Quoting United Airlines Contract of Carriage “…UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for failure to comply with the Contract of Carriage, Per Government Request, Regulations or Force Majeure situations.
So, here’s the list of passengers that can be denied boarding:
- unwilling to be searched
- unable provide Proof of Identity or travel papers including visas if traveling internationally
- have failed to Pay tickets
- Have withstanding court debts
- exhibit disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent conduct
- Fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives
- assault any employee of UA or cause a disturbance
- are barefoot or not properly clothed
- appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs
- wear or possess on or about their person concealed or unconcealed deadly or dangerous weapon
- unwilling or unable to follow UA’s policy on smoking or use of other smokeless materials
- unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly secured, unable to put the seat’s armrests down when seated and remain seated with the armrest down for the entirety of the flightor significantly encroach upon the adjoining passenger’s seat
- are in the custody of law enforcement personnel
- resist or believed to be capable of resisting custodial supervision
- Pregnant Passengers in their ninth month, unless such Passenger provides a doctor’s certificate
- are incapable of completing a flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance during the flight,
- appear to have symptoms of or have a communicable disease or condition that could pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others
- Non-Ambulatory Passengers
- have or cause a malodorous condition (other than individuals qualifying as disabled)
- have physical or mental condition that renders them incapable of comprehending or complying with safety instructions without the assistance of an escort.
- Unaccompanied Blind and Deaf persons when unable to communicate
- unwilling to follow UA’s policy that prohibits voice calls after the aircraft doors have closed, while taxiing in preparation for takeoff, or while airborne.
After reading this, some may wonder why cases of removal off flights are not more prevalent. Well, the short answer is customer service! Airlines don’t want to deal with the bad publicity accompanying stories like this one.
So how can we stop this from happening again?
Know your rights
As consumers, it would behoove all of us to read the airline ‘contract of ‘carriage’! Furthermore, in today’s world, it is imperative for customers to know their rights and make alternate plans when forced off flights.
As mentioned before, those are the regulations at present. If enough consumers want to see a policy change, they need to act. Hence passengers need to start petitions, call up their congressman and start the conversation.
Remember the lengthy waits on tarmacs? Airlines didn’t change procedures until new legislation was passed. It took an energetic Kate Hanni to start a movement that stopped the airlines from keeping passengers stuck on planes for hours. I suspect the same will happen here. The airlines’ will keep bumping passengers off flights and overbook flights because THEY CAN!
United’s to do list
After this week’s incident, someone at company headquarters should have come up with a plan to undo the PR damage. In fact, this would have been the perfect ‘mea culpa’ moment for the company.
As a loyal customer of twenty years, I’d like to see the company announce additional customer service training sessions for staff and review its overbooking policies. Moreover, copying Delta in offering higher compensations to customers when necessary would be good.
While it may be wishful thinking on my part, I hope United’s officials will recognize the importance of new measures to convince an eroding fan base to stay loyal to the brand.
Clearly, there are changes ahead, and we all need to partake in the effort. The practice of overbooking and bumping off will not resolve itself overnight; it will take some time to fix things.
Hopefully, years from now when we will look back; the focus will be on the change it brought instead of the personal suffering it caused.