This is the viral video du jour, and hoo boy, it's quite a doozy. United got a bit of a bad rap on 'LeggingsGate' a few weeks back, but this new controversy is a full-blown nightmare for the airline's public relations team. The clip below is admittedly uncomfortable to watch, and anyone who's ever flown commercially intuitively understands how this altercation quickly became the subject of widespread social media buzz. Yikes:
Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday. Passengers were allowed to board the flight, Bridges said, and once the flight was filled those on the plane were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats, Bridges said, and the offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered. Then, she said, a manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. One couple was selected first and left the airplane, she said, before the man in the video was confronted...Bridges said the man became "very upset" and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, Bridges said, and the man said he was calling his lawyer. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane. The man was able to get back on the plane after initially being taken off – his face was bloody and he seemed disoriented..."Everyone was shocked and appalled," Bridges said. "There were several children on the flight as well that were very upset."
Mistake after mistake, starting with "overbooking" the flight -- although it sounds like those four seats were needed to shuttle United employees to the next destination. So they booted paying customers to compensate for their own staffing issue; that's even worse than overselling the plane. In either case, once it was decided that this was the necessary course of action, forcibly uprooting a man (a medical doctor who needed to get home and treat patients, no less) from the seat he already occupied looks like mind-boggling overkill. As Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist writes, there was a far simpler way to the company to incentivize their desired outcome:
But why didn’t United just do the simple thing of understanding that the money it was offering was insufficient and needed to be raised? Laura Begley Broom just wrote in Forbes, “Why Delta Air Lines Paid Me $11,000 Not To Fly To Florida This Weekend.” She was caught up in the recent storm-caused travel delays. While Delta tried to take volunteers for lower amounts, she and her husband negotiated a better deal for their first flight delay. Then they did it again for a second delay. Then they negotiated an additional $1,000 per family member to cancel their trip altogether. Each step of the way, according to Broom, Delta understood that giving this family nearly $4,000 cash money was cheaper than dealing with an untenably complicated situation. United should have simply started offering more money. If $800 wasn’t enough, what about $1,000? If $1,000 wasn’t enough, how about $1,200? They were receiving real-time information about price setting and they weren’t responsive to it. Every passenger has a price point at which he or she is willing to disembark a given plane. For some passengers, they need to get to a funeral and the price will be high. For others, they might not even want to be making the trip and can be bought for much cheaper. United needed to find the passenger with the lowest price point.
At some point, someone is going to raise his or her hand to accept a cool grand or more in exchange for waiting for the next flight. Sure, that takes a minuscule bite out of the airline's bottom line, but what is today's social media meltdown going to end up costing them? Finally, once you've upset virtually everyone (for the record, I've been a loyal, lifelong United customer, and there's no way I can defend them on this), perhaps this sort of antiseptic, matter-of-fact tweet isn't a great way to quell the growing anger:
@USAnonymous Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave ^MD— United (@united) April 10, 2017
With the PR crisis spreading, United's CEO issued a statement that at least made it seem like the airline's stance on the incident was something more reasonable than 'oh well, stuff happens.' Low bar, but an improvement:
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0— United (@united) April 10, 2017
Parting thought: Munoz says United is in contact with the passenger to "further address and resolve this situation." If you were him, what would constitute a satisfactory resolution?