April 10, 2017
UNLESS YOU’VE BEEN living in a hole over the past couple of weeks, you’ve seen or heard (and maybe, like me, grown very tired of) the story about the passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Express regional jet in Chicago. The accompanying video is a little disturbing to watch.
This might sound like it’s coming from left field, but what I’m sensing here — what lies at the root of this unfortunate episode — was a lack of empowerment. There is no reason that an overbooked flight should result in the forced, physical removal of a passenger by law enforcement. There had to be a better solution. Yet nobody came up with one. Why?
Not all flights are routinely overbooked, and for those that are, it’s done in accordance with tracked data that predicts how many people with reservations are actually going to show up. Once in a while, for any number of reasons, those predictions are off, and there are more passengers than seats. When this happens, somebody, one way or the other, has to give up his or her seat. Who that person is will vary with a somewhat complicated seating hierarchy (when you bought your ticket, when you checked in, etc., are among the variables). To avoid it coming to this, carriers will offer a reward, usually in the form of a travel voucher, in exchange for a seat, and usually with the guarantee of a seat on a flight later that day. The value of the reward is incrementally increased until somebody takes the bait. Almost always they find enough volunteers.
This time, that didn’t happen. That presented a problem. But not a problem serious enough to justify calling the police and pulling a man from his seat and down the aisle. Whether or not the man, upon being asked to deplane, became obstinate or belligerent or anything else does not matter; it never should have come to this point in the first place.
It appears the airline’s staff reached a point where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police became the easiest and fastest way out. I hate saying it, but airline culture and training is often such that thinking creatively, and the devising of proverbial outside-the-box solutions, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is scripted, regimented, rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for going against the letter of the law, or for making a bad decision — not to mention chronically being pressed for time — that they won’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter along to somebody else who can then take responsibility. Workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.
Word has it that the airline stopped soliciting volunteers when the reward amount hit eight-hundred dollars. Somewhere it was written, or somebody had been told, not to go higher than this amount. And so nobody dared. This could have been, and should have been, a ridiculously simple situation to remedy: increase the reward amount until the needed volunteers put their hands up. What this required, though, was exactly the thing that airlines seem to be so afraid of: some on-the-spot resourcefulness. (Really this is problem across all of commercial aviation, not just within the airlines. Look at airport security, for example.)
The result has been a priceless amount of negative publicity, and almost certainly a lawsuit to come.
Some airlines are better at this than others, of course, and while it’s a culture and mindset issue, it’s also a logistical one, which makes it even harder to address and fix. The vast size and time-sensitive nature of an airline’s front-line operation, and the heavily compartmentalized pockets in which its employees work, each with their own objectives and expertise, play important roles as well.
I don’t know any more than the average person whose been following the story or who has watched the video. But my experience within the industry brings me to see it this way.
For the record, and to clarify something that virtually nobody has pointed out: this was a United Express flight, not a United Airlines flight, operated by a contractor company called Republic Airways (no relation to the original Republic Airlines, which no longer exists). The crewmembers were not United employees at all. That doesn’t mitigate what happened, and the flight was operated on United’s behalf, using its livery and branding, which makes United at least equally responsible. But, it’s a factual aspect of the story that has gone unmentioned. I don’t know which employees — Republic crewmembers or mainline United customer service employees in the terminal — were the ones who made the call to have the passenger taken off.
Apparently, the passenger was removed to accommodate a United or United Express crewmember. A lot is being made about this, understandably. To be clear, no carrier would deny boarding to a revenue passenger in order to accommodate an employee riding on his or her leisure time. We presume, in this case, the employee was a deadheading crew on assignment, being repositioned to fly elsewhere. Pilots or cabin staff on repositioning flights are considered a high priority. Hundreds of passengers could be affected further down the line should these crew members be delayed. (Deadheading employees are not traveling on standby. This is company-assigned flying and is very different from crewmembers who are “commuting” on their own time. See chapter four of my book for more details). That’s no excuse for what happened, and in some ways it only makes things worse, by showing off some sloppy planning, but it deserves an explanation.