Police Drag Man Off a United Flight


What has happened over at United Airlines? In another boneheaded customer service move, a passenger was involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight. Now, this isn't a big deal in itself; flights are oversold all the time, and airlines always ask for people to volunteer to give up their seats and get on the next flight out. If there aren't enough volunteers, someone has to go involuntarily.

But in a customer service fiasco that makes the airline's recent controversy over the appropriateness of leggings look positively tame,  United didn't just involuntarily bump a passenger -- they had him forcibly dragged off the plane. And while it's actually police officers who did the dirty work here, it's the airline that let things get to this point with some truly inept customer service.

In a random act of idiocy, the airline's gate team let a computer decide which passengers would be bumped from the oversold flight. They chose a doctor who needed to see patients in the morning, and he refused. (UPDATE: The company's CEO says the employees "followed established procedures.")

Now, you can already see where this is going. The doctor wasn't technically at liberty to refuse. Like everyone else, he's bound by the airline's contract of carriage and can be involuntarily bumped. I mean, he's not going to like it; that's kind of what we mean by "involuntarily." So technically, the airline did nothing wrong. 

But there is a big, BIG difference between technically doing nothing wrong and a public relations disaster! By handing a decision that rightly belonged in the hands of humans over to a computer, they made everyone's reason for getting to their destination completely equal. (UPDATE: Not completely equal, as the airline's computer decided based on their cold metrics: frequent flier status, ticket class, and check in time). But passengers' reasons for wanting to get to their destination right now are never totally equal. Some people don't want to get bumped, simply because they want to sleep in their own bed. Others have to see patients in the morning. 

A shred of common sense would have made all the difference here. The United employees would then have understood that people need to be spoken with individually and decisions made with something more than random chance. Or better yet, United could have upped the ante on what they'd be willing to pay for a volunteer. Because unless I have to be somewhere, there is a price you can pay to get me to give up my seat.

Needless to say, this incident has reached the United's CEO Oscar Munoz, who says the incident was "upsetting" to everyone at the airline. 

In a note sent to United employees, however, Munoz gave a different take on events, even calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent."  

And one other minor little point: Passengers are usually bumped before getting on the plane. Even if the doctor had been the right person to involuntarily bump, it should have happened before he was on the plane and settled in. Former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune tells CNBC that involuntarily bumps happen, but they're usually handled with more "maturity" than was displayed here. Totally agree!


In an update to this story, the police officer involved has been put on administrative leave. 



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