United Airlines' PR Fiasco
United Airlines’ Ninja-level lesson in how not to do PR went understandably viral on Monday after gate agents thought it a good idea to have the cops drag an apparently recalcitrant passenger off one of their airplanes. It reminded me that I’ve seen this movie. I was in this movie.
It occurred in Chicago around about 2005. I was homeward bound from attending a skydiving competition and for some reason, the flight was overloaded. Or so the gate agent said, at least as I recall it. O’Hare had gotten hammered by weather that morning and the system hadn’t recovered. People were pissed. Gate agents were on short fuses and it was just altogether unpleasant. On the PA, an agent first politely asked for volunteers to deplane and I distinctly remember her saying it was a weight and balance issue, which I thought odd.
Nobody moved. Several more offers were made until she hissed, “This airplane isn’t leaving the gate until four people get off.” The tension in the cabin went off-scale high and I turned to my seatmate and said, “I’m getting off before the riot starts.” On the way out, I collared one of the agents to get me the promised hotel and fare voucher post haste. She did, too. I’m pretty sure it was United. In the terminal, it was utter chaos. It was packed with people, many of whom were screaming at each other and the agents. There is nowhere I need to be so badly to put up with that. Ever. After a restful night in the hotel—sans baggage—I flew home the next morning with an empty seat next to me.
Sunday’s incident looked to me like a replay of my experience, but with no one willing to blink. There’s probably plenty of stink to go around, not the least of which is that the passenger had a role in the outcome. Still, anyone who flies has to remember that for all the gauzy promises in the airline copy, airlines generally care more about their rules than customers. And boy, do they have rules. United’s Contract of Carriage devotes 1205 words and 19 enumerated reasons for tossing passengers off airplanes.
You can be offloaded for wearing leggings (UAL did that last week), for going barefoot, for being drunk, even for farting (item 16). As specified originally in the Warsaw Convention and now the Montreal Convention, airline liability is limited. Perhaps a lawyer more familiar with the Uniform Commercial Code than I am could comment, but I think the airlines enjoy unusually company-centric protection compared to other businesses who contract for services.
So basically, Sunday’s incident was a contract dispute. It had nothing to do with safety, protecting passengers from undue risk or the greater good of anything but the airline’s own narrow interests. They wanted those seats for a crew needed elsewhere. The Contract of Carriage says they can do that. Where it appears to have run off the rails is when the gate personnel decided muscle was necessary and the cop(s) decided force was justified. For a contract dispute. No one apparently had the wisdom or restraint to say, “Wait, this isn’t worth it. Let’s find another way.”
This would be the customer-centric way of handling it, not to mention avoiding the PR turd United has now awarded itself. But, as noted, airlines are contractually protected against being too customer friendly. Your fare doesn’t guarantee you much in the way of customer rights.
I’m wondering if it isn’t time to reconsider that carriage contract and how airlines use it in defense of the annoying, if not abusive, practice of routinely overbooking flights and then jamming up passengers as a result. Overbooking usually works because there are enough people like me who will take the offer and a later flight. But sometimes, you’ll run into a planeload of people who just won’t. Call me crazy, but I think you need a better plan than having the cops drag them off the airplane. And I suspect we don't see more incidents like this because some airlines have such a plan.