The forcible removal of an airline passenger is continuing to cause trouble for United Airlines and it has airline passengers around the world talking.
The CEO of United Airlines pledged an investigation into the forcible removal of an airline passenger from one of its flights last week.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone — certainly not the airline — that there was video of a passenger being physically dragged down the aisle of an airplane after he refused to give up his seat.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone — certainly not the airline — that the video would go viral and a backlash would immediately follow.
And it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone — certainly not the airline — that the lack of a true apology for some 36 hours would only make matters worse.
The incident happened Sunday night on a flight headed from Chicago to Louisville. The drama started when United realized it needed four seats for its standby crew. Passengers were offered $800 and a hotel room if they’d take a later flight to accommodate the crew. When no one accepted that offer, the airline decided to involuntarily bump passengers.
It was initially reported that the flight was overbooked, the result of a widespread practice in which airlines sell tickets for more seats than exist. That’s done to make sure every seat actually gets sold, but it results in instances when passengers who’ve paid for a seat in good faith learn too late that their seat isn’t actually there.
That’s what was reported, of course, because that’s what United actually said in a tweet:
@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
“One customer refused to leave.”
Can you believe that? That customer, who paid for his seat, should have had every right to “refuse to leave.” When you pay for a service, you’re entitled to receive the service.
At least, that’s what most people who buy airline tickets probably assumed before this debacle happened; airlines have been quick to point out since the controversial incident that buried in the fine print at the point of ticket sales is a passenger agreement that gives the airline the choice to evict you from your seat for a variety of reasons.
For the record, I’ve also heard claims he initially agreed to leave, then changed his mind and ran back onto the jet from the terminal. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense given that I’ve even seen people claiming to be United employees stating he changed his mind after he was removed. If he had initially agreed, he wouldn’t have been removed: he would have left on his own.
Why did he refuse? Maybe he had a commitment he didn’t want to miss. Maybe he was just tired and wanted, more than anything else, to just get home.
I’ve also heard a claim he was traveling with his wife. I’m not sure that this is true, but if it were true, why would an airline try to split up a husband and wife? Surely there were solo passengers they could have forced off the plane to accommodate their flight crew.
But let’s get back to the scene and assume he initially refused to give up his seat.
If it had been you, would it have been anyone else’s business why you didn’t want to give up the seat you paid for?
You might be surprised to know that last year, U.S. airlines booted 40,000 passengers from their seats, a figure that does not include passengers who volunteered to give up their seats. Stats show, Fox News reported, that some 434,000 voluntarily gave up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers or some sort of reward.
To make matters worse, the airline took far too long to respond appropriately to a situation that should never have happened.
First, the company’s CEO said it they were sorry for having to “re-accommodate these customers,” adding they were reviewing the situation. In a letter to employees, he later added, however, that the man dragged off the plane had ignored requests by crew members to leave and became “disruptive and belligerent,” making it necessary to call airport police.
You might have become “disruptive and belligerent” if you’d purchased that seat only to be told a computer had randomly selected you to be kicked off, as if you and your plans didn’t matter.
It’s astounding that the airline couldn’t have put itself in its customers’ places long enough to see how that kind of treatment would feel.
The CEO’s third try was certainly more of an apology:
Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
Unfortunately for the airline, it came too late to prevent a social media backlash that spread like wildfire. It has even had international repercussions, with Vietnamese internet users calling for a boycott of the company and China’s state-run media seizing on the episode as proof of the US’s hypocrisy over human rights.
United does come right out and say that a denial of boarding is a possibility in its customer service policy.
But what message do they honestly think that sends to the customer who pays for a seat only to find out the effort they’ve put in to meet their own timetable is rendered meaningless? How’s a customer supposed to feel, despite an official “apology” and a promise to “fix this,” when the stated policy makes it clear that while being ejected from a flight isn’t a probability, it could be a real possibility?
For an industry that depends on logistics to move people to and fro, they don’t seem to understand logistics from their customers’ perspective at all.
They didn’t see how their customer, who, for whatever reason that was entirely his business and not theirs, would feel about being told he had no choice but to leave the flight.
They didn’t see the impact of calling security on the plane to handle a forcible removal of said customer on its other customers on the flight, which reportedly included children.
They didn’t see the obvious public relations disaster that was just waiting to happen when a 69-year-old man, whose lip had been bloodied somehow in the skirmish, was dragged down the aisle before multiple cell phone cameras recording the event.
There’s an old saying that people love to throw about: “The customer is always right.”
Brace yourself for a dose of common sense: the customer is not always right. Sometimes, the customer is legitimately in the wrong and can’t get his or her way.
But that doesn’t mean the business is always right: in this case, in the court of public opinion, manned by a population that may well reconsider ever boarding a United flight over this episode, the customer was far more in the right to refuse to volunteer to give up his seat than the airline was to physically eject him.
If airlines are genuinely committed to solving this kind of problem and preventing repeat incidents, putting themselves in the customer’s place might be the first place to begin.