United We Fall

A routine exercise in booting people off an overbooked flight in an attempt to have standby staff flown to Louisiana turned into a farce of major proportions, when one guy decided to do a Rosa Parks and stand up, or in this case, sit down, for his rights. He refused to move, so United Airlines could have seats for staff that needed to fly to Louisiana, likely a last-minute reassignment for them to crew another plane.

I suppose United’s decision to do this made sense to them in a twisted sort of way: they owned the plane, it was their crew, they could do what they wanted provided they gave the affected passengers compensation and an alternate trip back. Their house, their rules. It’s like a customer refusing to leave a restaurant even after being offered a free meal and fare for a cab ride home despite the repeated requests of its owner. Is the owner supposed to just throw his hands up in the air and let the customer have his way, or does he sic law enforcement on the offending party instead?

In my stint with Expedia, one of the most common scenarios was what we called an airline schedule change. Airline schedule changes (ASC) happen for a lot of reasons, the most common being a cancellation due to the weather or mechanical issues. A nonstop flight could be cancelled due to low ridership, and replaced with a connecting flight. It’s the responsibility of an airline to get a passenger where he or she needs to go – this is essentially the contract of carriage – so there is always an alternative. Passengers can be re-routed, rescheduled or, very rarely and if no other alternative can be found, refunded.

What could make the situation difficult was the reaction of passengers who were affected. Some – the more well-traveled, – took it in stride and accepted an alternative option, usually a flight slightly earlier, or later than the originally scheduled one. Others – likely first-time flyers – would panic, thinking the airline would cut and run with their money, leaving them with a cancelled flight and nothing to show for their efforts. Still others – the ones who’ve had the Magna Carta for breakfast – would haughtily demand to know the reason for the cancellation, and immediately segue into an ultimatum of First class, or else. (They never got first class.)

Weather and mechanical issues are easy enough to justify, i.e. Joe Passenger, the perfect storm is brewing over the Bahamas, do you really want to die in a metal tube a thousand kilometres above sea level, all because you insisted on getting there on schedule? But airlines also overbook, and passengers  end up getting bumped from flights. Being bumped is a trickier situation – overbooking leads to no seats being available and sometimes an agent can get callous, assuming that the customer will take common sense for granted and accept whatever recompense the airline is willing to provide. Some airlines are worse than others, and United Airlines has long had a rep for having obnoxious customer service. Boy, did they step in it this time.

They asked four people politely. Three left, albeit grudgingly, accepting the airline’s offer of compensation. One did not. He was so obstinate about it, United chose to use airport police. In the fracas, the flyer ended up bashing his head against an armrest, and was dragged by the arms through the aisle, blood dribbling from his mouth. The whole thing was a disaster, a PR nightmare and a monumentally awful decision, business-wise for United, which has since seen a drastic drop in its shares. A bloodied passenger being dragged through the aisle can do that to you. To be fair, the airline did not handle the passenger themselves; the ejection itself was done by airport enforcement. Still, it was ultimately United’s boneheaded decision to use force that caused the breakdown.

Was the airline well within its rights to deny boarding? Yes. Unbeknownst to many a passenger, an airline can choose to revoke a passenger’s seat on a scheduled flight, for as long as the passenger is compensated and/or re-accommodated, ensuring that he or she gets to the planned destination within a reasonable timeframe.

Should United have exercised it’s right to deny boarding? Not for the reasons it gave. Bumping off paying passengers in favour of flying a couple of crew members on standby to a city that was only about a four-hour drive away wasn’t a good enough reason to have a flyer forcibly removed from the plane.

It’s easy to sympathize with a guy being dragged through the aisle. The videos don’t show that he was actually asked quite a few times, politely, to leave the aircraft and refused to compromise even after being offered recompense. I don’t know about you, but getting home on schedule, barring a death in the family or the roof catching fire, simply isn’t worth that much aggravation.

Was United acting as entitled as its customers? Was an entitled customer offended that he did not have sole rights to to entitlement? Was this ultimately a battle of the entitled versus the entitled?

Whatever it was, no one won. Certainly not United, who basically called the cops on a passenger who refused to leave, nor the passenger, who decided to exercise his rights in a way that inconvenienced everyone and terrorized their children. Definitely not the airport police, who botched the removal and then let the passenger escape, whereupon he ran back inside the plane,  drooling blood, mumbling something about “having to get home.” There was no cause for United to be so overweening. There was no cause for the passenger to be so stubborn. There was no cause for airport enforcement to even be there.

They should have come to an agreement, reached a stalemate, offered a better compensation, or, when negotiations failed, found someone else willing to be taken off the flight. I’ve had hotel stays in Hong Kong and Japan on the airline’s dime because of schedule changes. If someone offered me another flight and an additional $1000, I would take it and run, provided I had no other connections to miss. Everyone’s got a price. (Clearly, I am not cut out to be Rosa Parks.)

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