Lessons from that United Airlines passenger-dragging incident

On the assumption that everyone in the online universe has now viewed the video of a plain-clothes policeman dragging a United Airlines passenger off his flight (see below), a few brief observations about United’s deeply evil nature failure of problem-solving skills.

Sample blog and article comments:

“The whole situation is a revealing, sad picture of life in Trump’s America, where corporate Gestapo can steal what a man paid for and beat him up and it is still his fault.”

“United Airlines’ forcible removal of a passenger exposed the everyday violence that keeps capitalism running.”

Unlike some people, I don’t think this incident illustrates how commercial aviation or the moden world is turning into an uncaring demon-infested MBA-run fascist hellscape. I kind of think the opposite. It does tell you something about the modern world, but what it tells you is a little less pessimistic than you might think.

To start at the beginning: almost all airlines overbook, because a fairly predictable percentage of people don’t turn up for their flight, and airline margins are horribly low. The problems start on that unusual or just unlucky day when you find a much higher-than-normal percentage of passengers turning up.

At United, procedures in this situation seem to dictate that ticketing staff make a public announcement asking people to give up their seats, and offering flight vouchers. On the day, United offered first US$400 and then US$800 – but only got two takers. It needed four.

This is apparently the point in United’s playbook where it starts ordering people off planes. Bad idea – or more accurately, lack of ideas.

The first problem is that the four people United needed to get onto the plane were United staff whom the company wanted to go to Louisville; it’s not clear that “overbooking” actually happened, though everything played out as if it had. A smart United supervisor could have put them in a chartered plane or for that matter in a taxi; Louisville is less than five hours from Chicago by road. But apparently no-one had the sense or authority to do that.

The second problem is that ordering people off planes is terrible customer relations and a horrible thing to do to someone, even if they go quietly. Just offer more money until someone takes it, United! But apparently no-one at the scene was empowered to do that, either.

The third problem is that United rival Delta has a superior solution to this problem. At check-in, they explicitly ask passengers how much they’d be willing to accept to get off the plane if necessary*. That makes the deal more apparent and gets everyone agreed on what can happen if the plane ends up with too many passengers. The result is that Delta gets far more passengers to voluntarily forego their flight, while keeping far fewer passengers on the ground involuntarily. Sweet. But either United hasn’t thought of copying this, or they didn’t understand that the United process was, in an age of smartphones and social media, a disaster waiting to happen.

Fourth, when the selected passenger refused to leave the plane, United staff felt they had to follow the rules exactly and call the police. The pragmatic move might have been for United staff to say: “He’s not budging. If we call the police, the situation’s out of our control. Let’s find someone else a little less totally invested in being in Louisville an hour from now.”

Having done some work on customer service processes myself, I know the desire to have consistent rules to which you don’t make exceptions. “If we do it for him, eventually we’ll have to do it for everyone,” we say. Except it’s often not true.

I also know the feeling of encountering a colleague who doesn’t want to apologise or compensate customers for bad experiences. Often it’s for “legal reasons”. But that often turns out to be a bad excuse too; you need to consult a good commercial lawyer to know for sure.

There are many reasons to compensate customers, but one is simply that when you pay compensation, the damage you’re doing actually goes right into the accounts where people can see it and start assigning accountability, instead of invisibly eroding your brand value. Another is that in the real world, most wronged consumers simply want an honest, committed admission of wrongdoing.

A lot of businesses have figured these things out, and most staff understand that having customers dragged along the floor in front of other customers is not going to enhance their employer’s business. United’s biggest problem is probably cultural: it hasn’t given staff the freedom to act like decent sensible people in difficult situations. (Or it’s possible that some of the least competent and empathetic people in the company were all together on the plane. Unlikely, but possible.)

So yes, the whole incident was terrible for the poor bloke being dragged violently out of the plane. But it was also an extremely unusual exception. That’s why it has millions of views on YouTube.

And it underlines that in a world which must try to fill thousands of planes with millions of passengers every week, we normally get this pretty right. That’s kind of astonishing. In a less well-ordered society, people might fight it out all the time for a right to a seat on the plane. Except that, you know, there wouldn’t be any planes …

Even weirder, this set of arrangements for getting people to co-operate is duplicated thousands of times in other activities. Somehow, using culture and rules and market transactions, we manage to rely on a globe-spanning network of total strangers to get stuff done every day. It’s kind of a miracle.

Note 1: After I initially wrote this for Troppo, a couple of US psychologists wrote a similar diagnosis at The Conversation, exploring why United’s culture needs to loosen up and be less rules-based.

Note 2: The pay-for-seats strategy is an unexpected adoption of a theory proposed, apparently in jest, by the economist Julian Simon in a short 1977 journal article titled “An Almost Practical Solution to Airline Overbooking”. Who says economists don’t give practical advice?

Note 3: By law US airlines apparently can’t offer more than US$1350 per flight in compensation, a figure probably in need of raising. But United didn’t even go to that limit.

Note 4: There’s also a suggestion that union rules would have prevented the crew being taxied to Louisville. A chartered business jet still seems like it would have solved problems here, though.

Note 5: On plane travel generally, I’m still mostly with Louis CK:

But, you know, maybe we amend the title to “Almost Everything Is Amazing …”

About David Walker

David Walker runs publishing consultancy Shorewalker DMS (shorewalker.net) and is commissioning editor of Acuity magazine. David has previously edited the award-winning INTHEBLACK business magazine, been chief operating officer of online publisher WorkDay Media, held policy and communications roles at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia and the Business Council of Australia, and run the website for online finance start-up eChoice. He has written professionally on economics, business and public policy since 1987 and spent three years in the Canberra Press Gallery for News Limited and The Age.
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13 Responses to Lessons from that United Airlines passenger-dragging incident

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thing is, once purchased, whatever it says in the fine print, people treat their tix as property. Property and ‘brand management’ schmooze don’t go together. Violate the (apparent) property right and people get very pissed off about it. Then you have to make sure the upshot isn’t memefiable and if it is, then you have to try to prevent it getting memefied.

    These guys are arseholes and as we learn in primary school if you want to act like an arsehole, make sure you disguise it.

  2. As David has stated, the problem to future situations seems simple: keep offering higher amounts to get four passengers off (of course you would have to pay the final offer to all four acceptors) and if the price was becoming ridiculous, then tell the staff who were booked for those seats they have to find alternate travel.
    Of course one wonders why too many passengers are let on the plane in the first place. Can’t the airline computer restrict ‘checks in’ to just the available seats.

    However do disagree with the “If we call the police, the situation’s out of our control. Let’s find someone else a little less totally invested in being in Louisville an hour from now.” line. Not really good for airline staff morale to mandate the adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.
    I think the worse thing about this whole incident is that that petulant, inconsiderate passenger is going to end up with millions for, unlike the other two passengers who did get up, acting like a child and not recognising the terms of his ticket contract, nor the property rights of the airline.

    • Marks says:

      That assumes the terms of his ticket contract did allow United to act as it did. It is on that point the question of whether the passenger will get millions will hinge.

      The use of force to assert a legal right is one thing. However, the use of force where no legal right exists, can elicit a crushing response from the legal system. Those United employees had better hope that they were in the right.

      Still, lets see what the law says when it’s tested in court.

  3. conrad says:

    There are better solutions — I’ve seen both Air France and Qantas also offer goodies, so if you get off you can have a good time without too much other annoyance. The Air France one was exceptional — It was a very long time ago (I wonder what they do now?), but they offered two tickets to the opera, two meals at a nice restaurant, a 5 star hotel and a relatively small amount of money. Of course, there were no problems with takers. I seriously thought about that (although it was taken too quickly), but if they had just offered money I would never have thought about it as it would have just been the next stress in my life. So the moral is that if treat people like humans and hence take the bother and boredom out of staying an extra day, everyone will be happy, quite possibly at far less expense than just money.

  4. derrida derider says:

    Edward clearly has a view of customer service that would fit right in at United.

    Dude, if you’re running an airline the customers ARE your business – no customers, no business. It doesn’t matter what fine print your lawyers have managed to put into the unread ticket contract.

    The only time you should even think of calling in the coppers is if you expect it to be in circumstances where the other customers would cheer you for doing so. Especially as in the land of the rugged, free individualists the coppers (real and also wannabe ones such as airline security) are well known for their – ahem – assertive approach to ensuring you conform. The customer is lucky he wasn’t shot.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    It’s true the American police do kill rather more of their charges than their counterparts do in other countries. But as Voltaire said of the British Admiralty after the demise of Admiral Bing (I think it was) after his retreat at the Battle of Minorca, such executions occur – to encourage the others.

  6. Paul Frijters says:

    the United staff clearly had not managed to persuade everyone to turn off their electronic devices and that is something they might try to address first (adding another policy is much easier than adopting different policies). I wonder if there is a jamming possibility whereby they can make sure that next time, no electronic device (except the airplane’s own systems) actually works. That would solve the problem as they will see it, which is risk of exposure.

  7. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    DD is clearly on the money. Isn’t the customer king?
    Obviously no-one at United understands the pub test!

  8. This article seems to have legs as we are still talking about it a week later.
    I didn’t like the earlier comparison of recalcitrant passenger with the honourable, late Admiral John Byng who was about to return to battle after repairs and resupply when he was instead arrested, court martialled, and executed for leaving the battle in the first place. Byng, like most naval personnel, bravely faced death or maiming to serve their king and country.
    Our United passenger probably wasn’t aware of all the specifics of the situation such as spare seats in the cockpit or another plane leaving an hour later, but only that the plane and passengers were not going to depart until four people, chosen at random, gave up their seats. When objecting to surrendering his seat did he offer an alternative solution to the problem? I’m guessing his unspoken alternative solution was that the airport police would move on to whichever next passenger wouldn’t scream and shout so much. This person with an earlier conviction for using his position as a doctor to break the criminal laws of the country, despite having generously been granted asylum by it after the Vietnam War, doesn’t really strike me as one of those individuals who is prepared to stand up and do the right thing when the interests of other innocent people are concerned.
    One wonders how he would have acted if on the Titanic? Women and children first, or where is it I should be able to find a woman’s dress that is my size?

    • John Clarke says:

      The fine print you are supposed to read if you buy a United Airlines ticket is only 37,000 words long, which is surely not asking too much. Besides, Dr Dao was only 69 years old when he was dragged off the plane with a broken nose, knocked out teeth and momentarily lost conciousness. At age 69 clearly he was the most eligible pasenger to be booted off the flight that UA deliberately overbooked. And because he was Vietnamese, he should have been grateful to stand at the back of the plane or checked himself in to the cargo area. Heil Corporate Power!

  9. Chris Lloyd says:

    I am kind of amazed that there was not a stampede when they offered $800 to spend the night in a local hotel and fly the next morning.

    • David Walker says:

      One theory is that people are more tightly scheduled these days, so that the cash is a little less attractive than it used to be.

      • conrad says:

        I believe it was a flight *voucher* not cash that expires in a year, presumably meaning (a) you can almost never spend the exact amount; and (b) the proportion of people who didn’t want to fly for that amount or more on a United flight in the next year wouldn’t want it. So the $800 is thus far less surprising.

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