Already this year we’ve had the Hawaiian Airlines “blanket” incident, the United Airlines “leggings” incident, and now, much, much, much worse, the United “dragged off the plane” public relations disaster.
All the facts aren't available yet, but it appears that the passenger now famously dragged down the aisle of a United plane operating from Chicago to Louisville, refused to give up his seat for a United employee who had to travel that night.
United offered passengers financial compensation (reports say it was as much as $800) to give up their seats but one passenger, who was already seated and may have been "chosen by computer” (which probably means by frequent flier status, fare paid, and when the flight was booked), refused the compensation and was forcibly removed.
What shocks me is that the gate agent or station manager in charge of the flight should have and could have increased the offer so that some other passenger would have eventually grabbed it. What would it have taken? A free flight on United anywhere in the world in first class? A few thousand dollars? Five? Ten? Ten would have been the best investment United made this year.
From what I can tell, this was not just a classic "oversell" situation where United sold more seats on the plane than there were seats, a situation governed by U.S. DOT rules. In addition to being oversold, for some reason, United (actually, United Express) needed to get employees to Louisville to operate a flight (didn't realize Louisville was such a vital airport for United or its United Express subcontractor; certainly hope these employees didn't need to get to Louisville "just because").
Whatever it would have taken to get just one more passenger to volunteer to deplane now looks like peanuts compared to the lost revenue from passengers refusing to fly the not-so-friendly skies, and the lawsuit that will certainly be filed and, no doubt, settled out of court. We're probably talking hundreds of thousands here.
In my opinion, United's statements to the media so far are just making matters worse.
Charlie Hobart, a United spokesman, told the New York Times today: “we had asked several times, politely” for the man to relinquish his seat before force was used.
“We had a customer who refused to leave the aircraft,” he told The Times. “We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there."
“Since that customer refused to leave the aircraft, we had to call the Chicago Police Department, and they came on board,” he continued.
United first sought volunteers to relinquish their seats with compensation, but none stepped forward, Hobart told The Times. Four passengers were selected to be bumped, and three left without incident, he said.
Even more shocking, the ejected passenger, now with a bloodied face and obviously in shock, was let back on the plane. We will be hearing about this story for days to come. Perhaps weeks.
The only possible silver lining: just as the industry learns how to prevent the next accident by carefully studying what caused the last one, I hope that airlines will similarly learn from this public relations disaster. United could have negotiated with passengers by upping the bumping compensation rather than resorting to force.
I’ll bet that today United would pay whatever it takes to make this go away. They should have done that last night.
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