UA breaks legs. Over four seats…yes four. It’s not about overbooking, it’s about a massive misjudgement

11 April, 2017

It's the video which has shocked the entire world today, a passenger being forcibly being removed from United Flight 3411 departing Chicago's O'Hare Airport - purely for refusing to disembark a flight United had admitted to overbooking. While United is (ill-advisedly) standing by its procedures for overbooking flights and how it handled the situation, it does beg the question, is this happening all over the world?

This incident is not just about overbooking practices really comes down to the unnecessary and ridiculous overuse of force shown by the officers involved.

The simple answer is yes - although usually without the gratuitous brutality. Every airline in the world strives to maximise its load factor and ensure as many seats as possible are utilised. Every empty seat on a flight is revenue lost, in an industry where margins are wafer thin.

On popular routes and during peak times, airlines will overbook flights planning for a certain percentage of passengers simply not to show up for the flight for one reason or another (such as being delayed in traffic or simply shopping for too long). Years of investment and analysis have gone into identifying trends and traveller behaviours to identify where and when this overbooking is likely to occur. The problem is that this cannot be an exact science and on occasion doesn't work out as planned; case in point: United Flight 3411.

In these cases, the airline seeks to entice passengers into giving up their seat for money and/or hotel vouchers, at a direct cost to the airline. For the airline to be willing to hand over large sums of money clearly means that the initial overbooking is worth the risk.

That is, unless that risk is a viral video of a passenger being physically manhandled and injured at the hands of security personnel on your aircraft.

According to other passengers, United offered USD400 and then USD800 in vouchers and a hotel stay for volunteers to give up their seats. When this didn't work, four random passengers were selected and asked to disembark the aircraft immediately. They were already in their seats, so this was not technically "denied boarding", an issue that may come back to bite United even harder when the seriously aggrieved passenger sues for damages. Three of the passengers gave up their seats without question, while the fourth, a doctor claiming to need to travel to see patients, refused. Security staff were then called to intervene and forcibly removed the passenger causing physical harm to him while shocked onlookers filmed the entire incident.

Why didn't United simply offer a larger enticement to get real volunteers?

With the benefit of hindsight, you can bet United would have. Everybody has their price, so sooner or later someone would have stood up. United has a rule of thumb that USD1,250 is the maximum, but in a case where the alternative was for someone to be physically dragged off the aircraft there should have been a company employee on the spot with authority to be more generous.

It would have been an extremely small price to pay compared with the millions of dollars it will now cost United in lost revenue. Not to mention court battles, damages claims, impacts to their brand and even possibly criminal charges being filed.

This incident is not just about overbooking practices airlines have in place or even how they allow incidents like this to occur. It really comes down to the unnecessary and ridiculous overuse of force shown by the officers involved.

At what point did it become acceptable to use such brutality in corporate practices? No other industry in the world would be able to change its mind on delivering a service or product to a paying customer and enlist physical violence to enforce that decision. How have we let this happen?

At what point did it become acceptable to use such brutality in corporate practices?

(On United's behalf, the incident is so bizarre that is seems there must surely be another shoe to fall, some information that is still to emerge. But even if that is the case, the damage has already been done.)

Then there is the recovery process…. or not

There are times when an organisation can even emerge from a crisis looking good - if the response is prompt and effective. Here again United completely blew it. A good crisis management strategy will allow on the spot delegation of responsibility to step in and resolve the situation. But seemingly there was nobody below the CEO authorised to make a public response. As a result, some time elapsed before United's CEO Oscar Munoz issued a strangely limp wristed apology for "having to reaccommodate these customers" and to say how he found the incident "upsetting".

As United scrambles to undertake damage control, perhaps Mr Munoz should be apologising for United's amazingly poor crisis recovery "strategies" and identify how it can win back the thousands of would-be travellers now questioning their loyalty.

People had just started to forget how "United breaks guitars" (which has now had nearly 17 million views on YouTube. This grave miscalculation will take a lot longer to forget. And will cost the airline much, much more.