Let’s answer some questions you probably have from the United beating

My fellow travel bloggers have covered the beating of a passenger aboard a United flight very well here and here.  Use whatever outrageous language you like and the reality was far worse.  It was a terrible situation for the doctor and obviously very embarrassing for United from a PR standpoint.

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Even more than that it exposed a series of unfortunate events that resulted in the calamity you’ve no doubt seen over and over again on social media by now.  Many of these events reference terminology the flying public don’t see every day (much like the United incident where some non-rev passengers were not allowed to board because they violated the dress code they agreed to when they got a non-rev seat) so it’s easy to be confused.  Let’s go over some of the terminology:

  • Overbooking – Airlines routinely oversell their planes when they can, for one simple reason: there are lots of people who (believe it or not) don’t show up for their flights.  It could be for many reasons: maybe they flew standby on an earlier flight, maybe they’re a consultant on a refundable ticket and cancelled it after rescheduling an important meeting, or maybe they have a flat tire on the way to the airport (I could go on and on but three examples is enough).  Moral of the story is that a statistically reliable amount of people will no-show (same is true of hotel stays and car reservations).  Overbooking keeps airfares low.  I know it seems crazy, and it definitely set off the events which lead to the bloodied face of a passenger, but overbooking is absolutely essential.  Some folks estimate the airline industry oversells by around 8%.  Let’s say American Airlines’s most recent load capacity (percentage of seats filled on their flights) was 88%.  If we get rid of overbooking, that means you’d need to cover the same cost with 8% fewer customers, meaning fares would increase.  The United flight doesn’t appear to have been oversold (based on my understanding of the events) and/or the expected amount of people missed the flight.  Which brings us to…
  • Deadheading – When an airline needs to reposition a crew to catch their next flight they refer to it as “deadheading”.  These flight crew do get priority over paying customers, for the simple reason that one or two people can easily be rebooked onto other flights but a missing crew could delay hundreds, costing the airline thousands of dollars.  Moral of the story: airlines can and will force a passenger to leave the aircraft to reposition a crew, but this actually happens rarely because…
  • Voluntary Deboarding (VDB) – occasionally you’ll see this happen, where more passengers show up than available seats on said flight (either due to overbooking or deadheading crew).  Or maybe (in the case of a long flight like DFW-HKG) there are weight restrictions, meaning the number of passengers is restricted to a certain amount.  Regardless of the reasoning, you’ll hear a gate agent ask for volunteers to take a later flight.  This usually comes with offers of compensation and a guaranteed seat on the next flight.  Sometimes these offers get quite crazy (I’ve had numerous friends receive $1000 vouchers for taking a DFW-HKG flight the following day instead of that day), to the degree that some frequent flyers will game the system by buying refundable tickets for flights which look overbooked, get a voucher, and then cancel the flight after it’s been rescheduled (I don’t condone this, for the record).  VDB usually frees up enough seats (or solves the overbooking) at a relatively low cost for the airline.  However, if it doesn’t work you can have…
  • Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB) – This is when a passenger is removed from the aircraft involuntarily.  The typical procedure (which is what United followed) is to have a computer select, at random, enough passengers to let the flight leave.  Those passengers, who will no doubt be reeeeeeeeeeeeally angry, are then removed from the aircraft.  They are compensated, per rules from the DOT available here (go to the Involuntary Bumping section), up to 4x the value of the ticket (capped at $1300) for the inconvenience.  But then there’s this general rule…
  • By law, passengers must obey commands from the flight crew – put simply, if you do not obey commands from the flight crew they can call the police and you will be removed from the flight (if you’re on the ground) or will be met by authorities once you land (in some serious cases the flight will actually divert to the closest airport).  This is obviously a last resort and happens rarely.
  • You’ve already agreed to all of these conditions when you purchased your ticket.  Whenever you purchase a ticket you agree to the airlines Contract of Carriage, which says all of the above is ok.  The Supreme Court basically ruled that you can’t sue airlines, so ultimately you’re fresh out of luck if the computer happens to pick your name for IDB.

So, as best as I can surmise, here’s what happened:

  • Doctor purchased a ticket
  • Doctor boarded flight because he had appointments with patients at a hospital the next morning
  • United probably oversold the flight but enough people missed the flight that it was ok, but there were no empty seats
  • United had a crew who needed to deadhead on that flight in order to catch their flight
  • This crew required four seats, so United asked for four volunteers for voluntary deboarding.  The voucher offer I believe started at $400 and ended up at $800.
  • Three passengers voluntarily deboarded
  • Flight crew warned the passengers if they didn’t get another volunteer they would have the computer pick someone to be removed from the flight.
  • After no volunteers came, United personnel randomly selected the aforementioned doctor.  When asked to deboard, the doctor refused, due to appointments with aforementioned patients.
  • Authorities were called to remove the passenger from the flight.  The doctor, as I’m sure most of us can understand, didn’t like hands being put on him and fought back, leading to a scuffle.
  • The video was posted to the internet and then the internet happened.

So who’s fault was it, United’s right?

It’s not that simple.  This entire episode took place entirely in the gray area between right and wrong.  It’s easy to blame United but the airline followed its policy.  The passenger understandably wanted to go on his flight to help his patients but he agreed that this was a possibility when he purchased his ticket.  The authorities had to remove the doctor from the flight and unfortunately when he resisted they had to use force (the amount of force used remains very much up for debate).

This was really a failure of de-escalation.  There are probably multiple times during the events that one calm kind word could’ve led to a different result, but clearly that didn’t happen.

Ultimately we all need to learn from this.  IDB happens, and there’s little you can do to prevent it.  The airlines don’t like doing it and passengers hate it, but it’s a reality of the industry and it isn’t going to change.

20 Comments

  1. How to avoid being bumped:
    Step 1. Fly jetBlue.
    Step 2. Arrive at your destination.

    Reply
  2. They could have up the amount. Everyone has a price.

    Reply
  3. Flying JetBlue does not guarantee not being bumped – last minute equipment swaps can mean more people having paid for a ticket than seats available. #themoreyouknow

    Reply
  4. If my policy is to threaten people, is that fine since I’m just following my policy?

    Reply
  5. They could change the rules to keep increasing the compensation. At some point, they will be volunteer takers.

    Reply
    • Agreed, but at a certain point you need to get the plane out.

      Reply
  6. All of which ignores the fact that with the high load factors these days, this will happen more and more.

    If ‘private security’ can physically drag you out of your seat and rough you up in the jetway for simply wanting to get the value you paid for… getting from Point A to Point B in a timely fashion.
    Well, if that’s what it’s come to, we are all in deep trouble.

    Reply
  7. Sorry, where is the Involuntary Deboarding (IDB)? That is what happened here and is not covered by any links you listed.

    Reply
    • It’s under the involuntary bumping section of the Flyer’s rights page.

      Reply
      • Nothing on that page specifically refers to being removed from your seat once you’ve been boarded. Bumping is Involuntary Denial of Boarding.

        Reply
  8. I like this article. You summarized what happened in a nicely order. All other articles simply make readers jump into conclusion right away and start arguing with each other.

    Reply
    • Thanks! Just trying to give everyone the background they need to form their own opinions is all.

      Reply
  9. United committed a criminal act and is now engaging in a criminal conspiracy coverup. Local news reports state the United crew was on stand-by. If it was so important for them to fly that night, they should have boarded first as I’ve seen other airlines do many many times, otherwise drive them to their destination. United used the police to solve a business dispute and this is something one sees in police states, not in the USA. They overtly abused the high security processes in effect that will result in reduced effectiveness as more and more people begin to fight back against the unfair and immoral behavior. This will make flying more uncomfortable for everyone else. I vote for the resignation of the CEO and the local employees going to jail.

    Reply
  10. Why do you appear to be supporting the possible legal right of UA to remove the passenger vs. the absurdity of using a police force to physically remove a passenger rather than offer $2000 so that their crew could arrive for the next flight. How do you not question the airlines ability to deny boarding if you are 10 seconds late for a flight and a major ‘traffic’ or other issue similar to those faced by the airline. The militarization of air travel used by UA and other airlines is absurd. Fire the CEO and resist the corporate muppets.

    Reply
  11. Andy, put yourself in the doctors clothes, what would you have done ? – Be honest Andy.

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  12. Andy: answer this for me. Why didn’t the airline staff identify the number of people that could not board to accommodate the additional crew before anyone actually boarded the plan. Then if there were actual open seats after that, they could put them on. Seems so simple.

    Reply
  13. I’m sorry, Andy. I know you’re trying to give United the benefit of the doubt. I don’t believe you’re trying to excuse their actions, but they weren’t legally covered by the contract for what happened.

    “By law, passengers must obey commands from the flight crew”

    There are limits to what the flight crew can legally order someone to do. As an extreme example, if the flight crew ordered someone to shoot and kill another passenger, a passenger couldn’t be removed for refusing to comply. The contract doesn’t make the interior of the plane into its own country where rules of conduct don’t apply. Since the passenger wasn’t being disruptive or violent, there was no excuse for using force to remove him.

    “Whenever you purchase a ticket you agree to the airlines Contract of Carriage, which says all of the above is ok”

    It absolutely does not. United’s Contract of Carriage does have Rule 21 (“Refusal of Transport”) and Rule 25 (“Denied Boarding Compensation”). Those apply to a federal rule denying someone from *boarding* a flight, not forcing someone to leave who’s *already* boarded.

    United’s Contract of Carriage does have a section on “Refusal of Transport,” which lists justifications that include things like intoxication, inability to fit into one seat, and medical problems or concerns. It doesn’t include “overbooking” as one of those reasons, so United didn’t have the legal right to eject him, even according to their own contract.

    More details here:
    http://lawnewz.com/high-profile/united-cites-wrong-rule-for-illegally-de-boarding-passenger/

    Reply
  14. What I find particularly interesting is the author’s position to not condone passengers gaming the system by purchasing tickets they do intend to use, yet seems comfortable with airlines gaming the system by selling tickets they do not intend to honor.

    Reply
    • Passengers purchasing tickets they do *not* intend to use.

      Reply
  15. Andy, you’re an asshole and an absolute tool of United. This is an absurd system; a relic of the past when flying used to be glamorous and regulated; and a total misuse of the pseudo-military authority the airlines are granted to protect public safety and national security, not to maximize profits. The airline has systematically reduced passenger rights; and increased costs and flying times. Passengers can’t just no-show with impunity anymore, and the “click to accept” contract you refer to is pure adhesion for the consumer–there is no ability to negotiate. United has an absolute monopoly on that route and should be treated as such. What they caused to happen was predictable once they called in the authorities. This has happened before and the patronizing email from Mr. Munoz showed the complete contempt for passengers and the truth that he held. The only difference with this incident is this that this time, thanks to the proliferation of iPhones there was video evidence to show the world. If United would’ve offered $1 million per passenger they would’ve saved money and gotten off cheaper than they will now… plus they would’ve had takers. Or, they could’ve chartered, or purchased a private jet and thrown it out when they were done and still been better off. United has abused their monopolistic status; abused FAA rules; abused consumers; and abused Chapter 11 Bankruptcy laws, when they should’ve been liquidated to payoff vendors, but instead stiffed them, so they could have an unfair advantage competing with other airlines struggling to keep their obligations. You and Mr. Munoz deserve to get Dr. Dao’s honor of being beaten like a baby seal before either of you share your next disingenuous, manipulative opinions, and next time United ends up in Bankruptcy Court, which I hope is soon, those misplaced assets deserve to end up in the hands of a much more worthy organization.

    Reply

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