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.
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.