Behind United’s ‘Immature Reaction’: Why the Skies Are Not So Friendly Anymore

A United retrojet in Chicago

By Paul Riegler on 10 April 2017
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A video of a man being forcibly removed from a United Airlines regional flight Sunday evening is evidence that the skies today are not as friendly as they once were. Indeed, the Chicago-based airline – after a 20-year hiatus – brought back its “Friendly Skies” slogan in late 2015, fusing it to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

When planes are full, however, some passengers simply won’t get on.

In case you are wondering, it isn’t only legal for airlines to turn away paying customers, but it happens hundreds of times a month. This is because today’s airlines have more or less perfected computer systems that are able to calculate the percentage by which they should overbook each flight. Mostly, the system works. Only a small number of flights go out completely full and the percentage of passengers turned away is miniscule.

The practice is legal and it contributes to lower ticket prices as well as to higher profits because airlines are able to fine-tune the selection of aircraft to accommodate what they expect to sell.

When a flight is oversold, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to ask for volunteers who may not be in a hurry to get to their destination. Airlines typically sweeten the pot by offering cash, credits, meals, and upgrades to entice people to volunteer.

If no one or not enough people volunteer, the airline can involuntarily deny boarding to a passenger and must give each affected passenger a written statement that explains his rights and how the airline decides who gets to travel on an oversold flight and who doesn’t. Most of the time, such passengers are entitled to denied-boarding compensation, although this depends on the price of the ticket and the length of the delay.

Each airline is governed by its contract of carriage. In United’s case, which is similar to that of its competitors, it can deny boarding on oversold flights if there are no volunteers. The contract of carriage is silent, however, on what might transpire if passengers are denied boarding after they are actually on the aircraft.

Boarding priority comes into play here. Minors and the disabled are protected and fare class and elite status will help determine boarding priority so those in the first- and business-class cabins as well as those with status are unlikely to be given the heave-ho.

Meanwhile, we have a doctor traveling back from Chicago to Louisville this past Sunday. His flight wasn’t oversold in the usual sense but it was full and United needed four seats in order to reposition crewmembers to Louisville for another flight. The airline asked for volunteers and got none. Four passengers were selected including the doctor, who likely paid a low fare and was not an elite. Hence he was shown the door, so to speak.

According to the publicly posted video, he was forcibly pulled out of his seat by police officers acting at the request of the airline, dragged down the aisle like a piece of luggage as dozens of horrified passengers watched and several recorded the scene.

Meanwhile, United Airlines’ response to the uproar rang hollow. CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement apologizing for “having to re-accommodate” passengers, as if the doctor had been asked to give up his aisle seat for a center in the last row.

That wasn’t the last word, however. Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010 to form United-Continental Holdings, told CNBC in an interview Monday that such situations are “usually handled with a whole lot more maturity,” and that “This immature reaction disturbs us all.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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