Your Seat is Never Guaranteed- The Weird United “unboarding”

The world is aghast at the sight of airport security officials hauling David Dao. a passenger the airline described as  “belligerent” off a plane at Chicago airport.

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It is likely you will have seen the videos of the guy being dragged down the aisle of the Embraer. I suspect the travelling world has paid more attention to this incident than the children being bombed to death in Syria or the people starving in Somalia or the gay men being rounded up and put in concentration camps in Chechnya. I suppose because we can all relate more easily to this situation (especially if we have flown United) than those other tragedies.

The security officer involved has been suspended. I suspect that is a little unfair. He may have been told that his job was to get a passenger off at all costs. A passenger who then proved to be not easy to remove because he didn’t want to go.

The incident reminds me of three things which we passengers must remember:

  1. Airlines will sometimes overbook or your flight may be cancelled, diverted or rerouted. As a passenger, we have no control over this. This may affect your attendance at a wedding, funeral, family event or your workplace. Those considerations are usually secondary to the operational requirements of the airline. Government rules in most countries, allow a carrier to sell more seats than a flight can accommodate which ensures full planes despite the number of no-shows that they expect on any particular flight.
  2. You do not own your seat: if an airline needs your seat to accommodate another passenger or in this case crew that would be operating flights the next day from Louisville, may take your seat from you.  No amount of refusal or shouting will stop that. It is listed in the airline’s conditions (which like Apple’s Itunes, none of us read)
  3. The pilot has authority on a plane. If you are asked to do something by the pilot, you have to do it.

If you are denied boarding or your flight does not function in the way you expected, you may be eligible for compensation (NB not always though). It is better to calmly ask for what you are owed, than refuse to leave your seat or yell at staff.  Most countries have some sort of rules around this. For example, in the US, the Department of Transportation has guidance about compensation for:

  • “involuntarily denied boarding” -An involuntarily bumped traveller is entitled to an amount worth 400% of their one-way fare (capped at $USD1,350)
  • Voluntary Bumping – where the airline may offer you an incentive to take a later or different flight -only happened to me three times in 1198 flights and all thoe occasions, the airline did not need my seat
  • delayed or cancelled flights– no Federal requirements for compensation- up to the airline’s discretion
  • baggage

It does not matter that the airline had the right to remove the passenger, they now have a PR nightmare. Mr Dao has hired two layers and I assume that there will be a hefty (and quick) payment for him. I don’t think there will be long term damage to the airline but this incident will not be forgotten for a long time.

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Surely there must have been a better way?:

  1. Could a limo have been laid on to take the offloaded passengers that night?
  2. The passengers could have been offered the maximum $1350 compensation. The gate agent should have kept upping the price. Someone may have been tempted at the $1350 level (I know I would).
  3. If that did not work, maybe each passenger could have been individually asked what their price would have been? They may have found someone willing to stay, even if it cost the airline $2000? That would have avoided the thousands of dollars of business, they could stand to lose now?

Screen Shot 2017-04-12 at 7.28.21 amThe CEO of United, Oscar Munoz won PR Week’s “Communicator of the Year” last month. He will be needing those skills over the next few days. This will be an incident few will forget. Personally, I have hated United for some time. Not quite as much as I detest American, however but in the race for market share, customer care was long forgotten. I continue to wish Oscar Munoz well in his endeavours. I like him and think he has a genuine commitment to fix things but he has a big job. The question is will he survive this? Will his board back him? Oh, and can I have Continental Airlines back please?


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  1. Agree with most of this, especially about the fact that most people do not know what their rights (and lack of) are in certain tricky situations. It has, however, already hurt United, with stock falling 3% overnight & wiping $600million off the company’s value!

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