The Travel Detective

Travel Detective Blog: What the United Flight Incident Means for You

Image Credit: Lasse Fuss

Locations in this article:  Chicago, IL Louisville, KY
Image Credit: Lasse Fuss

Image Credit: Lasse Fuss

What were they thinking?

The incident on the United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, when a passenger was forcibly removed from the overbooked flight, went viral. It poses a serious question about long-standing and denied boarding policies at all airlines.

It is also becoming the textbook case of how an airline can’t or won’t get ahead of a bad story. As a result, the airline is being branded by some with a new customer service slogan: “We’re not happy until you’re not happy.”

First, let’s start with the facts.

Under a long-standing Department of Transportation rule (dating back to the old days of Ralph Nader, when the consumer advocate was bumped from a flight in Washington, D.C. and later sued the airline), when an airline overbooks a flight it is required to:

1. Ask for volunteers willing to volunteer their seat in return for a voucher with cash value and the promise to fly those volunteers to their destination on the airline’s next available flight.

2. If no passenger volunteers, then the dollar value of the offered voucher increases until enough passengers volunteer to remedy the overbooking situation.

3. How much can the voucher be? Up to $1350.

It’s as simple and straightforward as that. This “volunteer” auction can happen at either the gate area before boarding, or it can happen after boarding.

Many of you may have experienced an overbooking situation. I’ve been in situations where the auction even exceeded the $1350 amount…but I’ve never been in a situation where someone didn’t volunteer.

So what happened on this flight? Here’s what we know. The airline:

1. had an overbooked flight
2. wanted to have an on-time departure
3. may have had the “volunteer” auction, but never even came close to upping the ante beyond $850

Then…the airline apparently arbitrarily “chose” a volunteer to give up his seat in order to seat deadheading flight crew.

It was, to say the least, very badly handled by the airline. But worse, the airline’s responses were too little, too late. The ramifications for the airline in terms of engendering ill will with current and prospective passengers can’t be measured yet—but they also can’t be good.

But in the meantime, there are lessons here for passengers as well. Whether you are on the ground or in the air, if a member of a flight crew orders you to do something (or even merely requests it) and you do not comply or refuse, you are in violation of a federal law. You have disobeyed a direct order of the flight crew, and you can—and will be—removed from the plane on the ground and arrested. Or you will be met at your arrival destination and arrested. Even if you are in the right, the most appropriate course of action is to comply with the request and then have the discussion/argument on the ground and off the plane.

For the moment, United is not going to win this issue with the public. It’s a hall of fame candidate for PR nightmares. It reminds me of how this same airline handled the now-infamous case of the broken guitar with musician Dave Carroll a number of years ago.

What should the airline do with the doctor who was literally dragged off the Louisville flight? Give him a coupon for a free drink? Refund his money? Offer him an upgrade on his next flight? Chances are, the airline will do all three. But it is clearly not enough to erase the powerful visual image of him being hauled off that plane. The doctor has already retained legal counsel.

My prediction: a lawsuit will be filed. United will write a big check and settle out of court, worried about losing the case and setting legal precedent.

What should YOU do if you’re a flight with a similar overbooking situation? Remember the federal law about obeying the commands of a flight crew. If it’s a case of overbooking, remind the airline of the need for an auction for that dollar value voucher. Or, even better—in an era where major U.S. airlines have reduced capacity and just about every plane is full—insist that the U.S. Department of Transportation review current overbooking rules and then up the dollar limits of the transportation voucher. In fact, the DOT may not have a choice as a direct result of this incident on the Chicago-Louisville flight. Hundreds of thousands of Americans now know about their rights as “volunteers.”

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By Peter Greenberg for