United incident exposes limited rights of US air passengers
CHICAGO: The online video footage of a United Airlines passenger dragged off a flight, which damaged the company’s reputation, highlighted the limited options US passengers have on overbooked flights.
United’s problems began after security officers on Sunday dragged a 69-year-old man off a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, because he refused to be “bumped” — an airline practice that has gotten increased scrutiny in light of the incident.
Some passengers recorded the incident and posted videos online. The resulting furor led to a public relations nightmare and battered United’s stock Tuesday, sending it down 2.9 percent in afternoon trading.
The Department of Transportation said on Tuesday it was reviewing United’s actions “to determine whether the airline complied with the oversales rule.”
“It is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities,” DOT said in a statement.
The incident shined a new light on the practice of overbooking, which airlines increasingly rely upon to avoid losing money on empty seats when some passengers do not show up for scheduled flights.
If they were to stop overbooking, “the only way of trying to compensate for that over the long term would be to raise fares on everyone else,” said industry analyst Robert Mann.
Instead, airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on a plane, and are generally able to properly forecast demand to avoid major disruptions in getting passengers to their destinations, Mann said.
But, sometimes, they miscalculate and there are more passengers than a flight can handle. In those instances, airlines offer travel vouchers, and cash compensation that can go north of $1,000, to entice some passengers to voluntarily give up their seats and fly on later flights.
When enticing does not work, airlines have wide latitude, spelled out in the conditions of carriage contract passengers agree to when purchasing a ticket, Mann said.
‘You don’t really have any rights’
“If you’re still in the terminal waiting to board, you can be told you can’t board, even if you have a reservation, even if you have a ticket. And once you’re on board, you are subject to being deplaned based on the order of the crew. So you don’t really have any rights,” Mann said.
The US Department of Transportation (DOT) allows for all this, with some conditions. Chief among them, that airlines try to coax passengers off flights first and offer financial compensation.
Last year, 434,000 passengers volunteered to be bumped off flights, while another 40,000 were bumped involuntarily and compensated.
In the United incident, the airline forced four randomly selected passengers off the plane to make room for four crew members who needed to get to Louisville, after no one would give up their seat voluntarily.
United said that it offered compensation of up to $1,000 on Sunday, but no passengers on the Chicago-Louisville flight volunteered, likely because the next flight would have been on the following day.
The passenger who was dragged off had reportedly protested and alleged that he was being targeted due to his ethnicity, according to witness accounts, which initially identified the man as Chinese American.
That caused angry condemnations on Chinese social media sites.
US media on Tuesday identified the man as a doctor of Vietnamese heritage living in Kentucky, who had at one point been convicted of trading drugs and had had his medical license suspended until last year.
In a written statement on Monday, United chief executive Oscar Munoz said United was “reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
But in a letter to employees, which was obtained by US media, he appeared to cast part of the blame on the passenger, saying he “defied” authorities and “compounded” the incident.
“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” Munoz wrote.
United’s should have shown more concern for their passengers, said Andy Holdsworth, a crisis management specialist at the British PR firm Bell Pottinger.
“Whilst the passenger’s behavior was not good, United have shown no compassion or concern for the man,” he said.
The PR nightmare was the second in about two weeks for the airline.
In late March, two teenage girls were prevented from boarding a flight in Denver because they wore leggings.
The airline defended its action at the time by saying the girls were flying on passes that required them to abide by a dress code in return for free or discounted travel.
“They will need to be careful that these small incidents all start to add up and only remind us of the last incident as well as the current one,” Holdsworth said.