Update: More careful reading of United’s Contract suggests both that this didn’t fit the definition of an oversold flight, and that even if it did, they only have the power to “deny boarding” to a bumped passenger, not to remove them from an aircraft. If this is true, then this case is simple and much less interesting: UA/Republic should admit fault and compensate those involved and retrain staff. End of that part of the story. Later-update: This might might have involved a special “Must ride” classification put on the flight crew which changes the rule yet again.
The viral video of the day is that of police pulling a main from a United Airlines flight. He doesn’t want to go, and they pull him out, and bash his head on the armrest, then drag out his unconscious body. It’s a nightmare for everybody, and the video sends clear chills into every viewer. (Once, after I changed my flight to fly home from Hawai`i with Kathryn, they involuntarily removed her from the plane for a crew member. I spent the flight next to an empty seat as the crew member went to the cockpit jumpseat, and she flew on a later flight that lost an engine. We’ve never flown on that airline again.)
In spite of that, I have some sympathy for both sides, and while clearly things went very wrong here, as even United will eventually admit, the more interesting question for me is “what should airlines do to make this work better”? I do believe that UA clearly didn’t want this to happen, though their policies created a small risk that it would. I am sure they don’t want it to happen again. So if you were the person writing the policy for these situations, what would you do?
- This was UA3411, UA’s 2nd last flight from ORD to Louisville. UA (or rather Republic airlines, a small regional flying under the United Express logo) had 4 flight crew who were needed for an early flight from Louisville and, I presume, had no other option for getting them there. (The next flight was obviously more oversold.) If they don’t get there, and sleep the legally required amount, that flight is canceled and a whole lot of people don’t fly, and a bunch of other flights are affected too. Aviation rules are strict on this.
- In an unusual situation, the four flight attendants are not expected. It is quite common for flight crew moving to their next job to be on flights and displace paying passengers, but unusual for it to be a surprise, to happen after the passengers have already boarded a full flight.
- So they ask ( as is required by law) for people to volunteer to get off in exchange for a reward. Unfortunately, all they can offer is a flight Monday afternoon. Nobody wants that, apparently, and the offer gets up to $800 plus hotel. Tickets on this 90 minute flight are only $187, but nobody wants the offer. That’s also unusual.
- The law then gives the airline another option, involuntary bump. They tell the passengers they will do this if nobody volunteers. They select a pool of “low priority” passengers (those who took super-discount fares, removing elites and the disabled and a few others.) They pick 4 at random.
- 3 of those selected get off. The law requires they get a compensation of around $800 but in cash, not coupons. One, a doctor, refuses. He tells some people he has to see patients in the morning.
- They say the plane can’t take off until this passenger leaves. He won’t. They call the airport cops. The airport cops come to his seat to remove him.
- You can see what happens next on the video. He won’t go. They physically try to pull him out. He screams and clings to the seat. They pull harder. He hits his head on the opposite armrest and is knocked out.
- They drag his limp form from the plane — you can see that on video.
- Amazingly, he somehow gets back on the plane, bloodied and a bit confused. He keeps repeating, “I have to get home.” He does not appear to be wearing leggings.
New information reveals that a whole bunch of things went wrong at once, which does not excuse police manhandling a passenger, but helps us understand why it went pear-shaped.
First, understanding overselling — and why the flying public wants it
Most flights these days are oversold, because a lot of people don’t show for their flights. The system of overselling, then calling for volunteers when too many show up makes the planes fly mostly full these days on many routes. It’s a fact of flying and allowed in the law. It makes flight more efficient, perhaps 5-10% more. On competitive routes, that makes tickets cheaper for everybody. It has another benefit to the flying public — more people get to fly on the flight they want, because the airline is willing to sell you a seat on a “full” flight, knowing that 99% of the time you and everybody else will actually get to fly. The alternative is that an empty seat flies, and you wastefully take another flight. Passengers really like more availability, though they don’t directly see how it happens. The reality is many of the flights you see in your web search are technically oversold. If it is really sold out, it’s actually oversold past their limit.
Airlines could elect to not oversell, or not oversell as much, but that comes with a cost. More people denied the flight they want. More expensive tickets. More emissions per passenger. The world doesn’t want that, so the world allows and the law regulates, overselling.
Of course, there is a way to avoid ever being bumped. Pay more for your ticket, or be an elite flyer, as I am. (In fact, as an elite, they actually guarantee me a seat on “really, really sold out” flights 24 hours in advance, which really means they push their oversell percentage by plus-one for elites. If I do this — I never have — they just decide it is cheaper to pay a volunteer to get off the flight than to deny one of their elites the flight they need.)
So the most obvious solution, “Don’t oversell,” comes with a cost I don’t think the airlines or flying public actually want. Consider it this way. A flight you need with 100 seats has had 100 bookings. The airline knows that on average 7 of them won’t show up. Do you want the airline to let you “reserve” on that plane, or tell you “sorry, fly the next day?” Do you want them to only offer you a standby ticket because other people, who paid far less than you for their tickets and who barely fly on their airline, got there first? (And yes, those people who buy late pay a premium.) The airline hates taking off with an empty seat, but you hate being told you can’t get on a flight that ended up with empty seats even more.
Airlines are getting quite good at it. In 2015, only .09% of passengers were bumped, and only .01% involuntarily.
The public wants bumping for flight crew, too!
Turns out, it’s in the public interest that flight crew needed for another flight have higher priority than we do, even to the point of removing us from planes we already boarded. That may not be allowed, but one has to consider the difference between one person removed (voluntarily or not) with compensation and the very large group of people who will have their flight cancelled (sometimes with no compensation) if the flight crew doesn’t get there, properly rested and ready. You don’t want to be either, and utilitarianism is not always the right philosophy, but here the numbers are overwhelming. One guy doesn’t fly or 70 people don’t. So we want a system where that can happen, but smoothly and ideally voluntarily.
Understand involuntary bumping
Usually, the system of offering fat compensation — $800, a hotel and meals for a $180 flight is a pretty good deal — works fine. There are people who actually relish it. I met one guy who says he deliberately tries to get bumped the day before Thanksgiving — when the offers get very high. But nobody was taking it. Most would miss a day of work, which is not an easy thing to do.
The law then allows the airlines to do an involuntary bumping. They have an algorithm that picks people and they are “denied boarding.” The law specifies compensation. In this case 4 times the ticket price and other compensations. And this is cash, not flight coupons. Cash is worth a lot more.
This law is one of the culprits here. The law effectively puts a cap on the offer you will get. The airlines, in a move they thought at first was rational, don’t want to offer you a lot more than the price the law defines for an involuntary bump. Why give a passenger $2,000 when you can do it for $1,000 under the law. Well, one reason is bad PR — which is true in spades here.
The airlines don’t want to do this. About 1 in 1,000 passengers are bumped, and 1 in 10,000 are involuntarily bumped, and has been going down as they get better at working their systems. But it happens.
Without the involuntary rule, the airline might have considered the next solution…
Make better offers for voluntary bumping
This problem would have been defused if they had kept increasing the offer until somebody took it. (Those who took it early will of course be upset, but that’s how it goes.) While there is a practical limit, a volunteer should be found long before it.
They could also consider other things that are not money. Often bump offers come with things like first class upgrades which can be cheap for the airline and very nice to the passenger. They could offer a very coveted thing to some passengers — elite qualification. At the extreme, if they offered 20,000 elite qualification miles or a full-tier bump in elite status, I could see even elite passengers jumping up to volunteer. We don’t usually. We know we will never get involuntarily bumped. We usually have places to go. But we crave that elite status so much that some people fly “mileage runs” — flights to nowhere just to accumulate miles — to keep and increment it. If UA said, “get off this plane and we’ll make you 1K” they would have had a line out the door of volunteers.
To avoid this situation, they should have a better plan of juicy things to offer.
Technically, the law says that the airline can deny you boarding. Some are wondering if that gives them the right to do what they did here — take an already boarded passenger off the plane. This is not certain. It does happen all the time.
And let’s face it, the doctor in question is a fool, or wasn’t in a good state. Whether the airline is right or not, once the pilot has ordered you off the plane, in today’s world, barring a major emergency travel need, you are not rational if you don’t get off. If the police come and order you to get off, you get off. You don’t resist. I’m not saying he deserved to get his head bashed. The police handled this badly, and are apparently under disciplinary leave. And United has to know that any time they escalate to using police, this sort of thing, though very rare, can happen. It’s clear their planning did not expect that a passenger would just flat out refuse, even with police there. Air rage is hardly unknown, so this is an error on their part.
I’m not saying we should be sheep. But he should get off and then sue, not fight the police. I don’t actually think he’ll have a lot of legal claim, but we’ll see. The real damage to United will be in PR. Somebody is probably recording a “United breaks heads” song like the “United breaks guitars” song that caused them so much trouble years ago.
In addition, it’s clear we give way too much power to flight crews. People deserve more rights on planes, especially planes on the ground where there is no more safety issue than a parked bus. The airlines overuse their “aviation security” card and they make us live in fear of that power. One part of us cheers on this man who challenged that, but another part thinks he was a bit nuts. He risked criminal charges and even never flying again to stay on that plane. He was told the flight would not take off with him on it. (I’m surprised that didn’t make the other passengers, who were clearly all in a hurry, turn against him.)
Calling the police — or the police at the destination
One factor I don’t think UA or anybody else understood is that calling the police massively increases the risk of things getting out of control. Normally it will be orderly, but in very rare cases, like this one, it can get very bad.
I believe a better solution in this case would be to call the police in Louisville instead, and to tell the passenger that. Say, “We are going to get somebody else to give up their seat. Then we are going to fly. When you get off the plane, police will take you to jail. You should make bail by tomorrow, around the time our alternate flight arrives. You will pay a fat fine.” Have the physical confrontation, if there is to be one, off the plane, at the other airport. But unless he’s really crazy he gets off, and if he doesn’t, when they explain those rules to the next guy, I am 100% sure somebody gets off and the plane flies.
Contractual involuntary bumping
Another alternative would be to make it a condition on deep-discount tickets, and make people click I agree. “You recognize this low fare ticket may mean you will be denied travel on your flight in the event the flight is over capacity. If that happens, first we will call for volunteers, but if not enough appear, you may be chosen at random, and you will not fly but be given $X in flight credit and booking on the next available flight.”
The problem of course is that even though this is voluntary, those who lose that random drawing might still get upset and physically refuse to leave, creating the risk of a confrontation like this.
This problem arose because the law gave airlines the power to involuntarily bump passengers for a fixed fee. But we may still want government involvement on any new regime, such as rules that say, “If the carriage contract includes involuntary bumping rules, they must meet these minimum standards.”
Special case situation may make this more interesting
Update: Some reports have brought in some new factors. Because the rules all talk about “denying boarding” there is debate as to whether they apply to passengers who have already boarded the aircraft. In addition, because the 4 flight crew did not have reservations (they walked up last minute) they were standby passengers, not confirmed passengers, which may make this not be an overbooking situation.
The truth is, if these things are true, they actually make this case much less interesting! That’s because they make it a rare special case, with little bearing on most of our lives. (I say little bearing because almost this exact thing happened to Kathryn and I, where she was pulled from her seat for a deadheading pilot, but I still believe that to be quite rare.)
Overselling is a fact of life in flying, and we want it to be, so that’s interesting. Deadheading crew who need to get somewhere to stop a flight from being cancelled and thus are higher priority than passengers is another everyday reality in flying, so that’s interesting too. If this is just about a rare violation of specific contract terms it is boring.
Of course, one time consuming work-around in this situation might be to deboard the entire plane, then have a re-boarding, where they can “deny boarding.” That also eliminates the need to pull people off planes by force.
I must admit, I don’t know why nobody took the $800 offer. That’s a lot for a short flight like this. Perhaps there is more to learn on the situation. It looks like one of those situations where a bunch of unusual things happened at once, screwing up whatever plans they airline has:
- The deadheading flight attendants show up after the passengers have boarded and say they need to be on the flight. Normally this is planned in advance and so bumping is done in the waiting area.
- Presumably the last minute travel of the flight crew implies there was no other means to get them there. Normally you want to keep options open.
- Various other factors make none of the passengers willing to take a pretty decent compensation offer. Usually some would.
- One of the passengers randomly chosen really feels he needs to take the flight, to the point of refusing. Also pretty unusual, but there is nothing one can do if just in the waiting area.
- All of this escalates to a stupid decision to call in police on something closer to an economic matter, and that creates an altercation as he physically resists.
Some have suggested United should have found a way to get those flight attendants to Louisville. It’s just a 5 hour drive. I doubt the sleep rules (which apply to FAs as much as pilots) would allow that, but they could have allowed it for passengers. United could have offered passengers a limo ride. While I can’t, some people are OK sleeping in a limo. Or a flight to Cinci. For the same reason, UA probably couldn’t try to rush a private charter for its FAs — even the delay of a couple of hours setting that up might muck up their sleep clock. If they had a procedure in place, they could possibly have had the FAs go to sleep at a Chicago hotel and arranged a private flight early in the morning for them. I doubt they had a procedure for this, because this situation is so rare, and the involuntary bump already gives them a cheaper (but in this case riskier) solution. They might have been able to find some off-duty flight crew who are fully rested somewhere nearby, but I doubt they have a system for this, because they don’t need one. Airlines just don’t keep idle flight crews sitting around small airports.
The harsh reality is that airlines are pushed pretty thin on efficiency. They don’t have a lot of idle planes and flight crew. They have some slack in the system, but it’s a well tuned amount of slack, and sometimes it will be pushed to its limits. It’s overly expensive to have so much slack that you never fail. In fact, that’s not what the public wants.
To top it all off, United is not a very good airline. I say that even though I have had their 100,000 mile status for several years, and in fact earned over 200,000 miles on them last year. But not really on them — most of that came on their Star Alliance partners, because they really do have problems. That’s even though as a 1K they treat me a lot better than that doctor.
Now they have more problems. This is the result of several things going wrong at once, but the reality is that happens.
It may be time to alter the involuntary bump rules or at least raise the limits. And the airlines, after seeing this, will probably just start acting like that happened already, increasing their offers and using involuntary bump — especially of already boarded passengers — as a very last resort.
But it should also be understood that the doctor was being selfish in his own way. While this was possibly not explained to him, if nobody got off that plane, then a whole planeload of people the next morning would have, I presume, faced a cancelled flight. And perhaps the people planning to be on that plane at its destination, though they do have some slop in the system to deal with such problems. If I had seen my flight cancelled because of him, I would not have been so sympathetic to him, even though nobody should have been treated the way police treated him.
(If you want to see upset, on Dec 24 my flight home for Christmas was cancelled because a cascade of problems caused the flight crew to reach their work time limit. Passengers were told it would fly the next day and they would miss Christmas dinner with family. Those were not happy passengers.)
Better planning can also help. Did UA really schedule the flight crew on the last possible flight? Or were they scheduled on an earlier one and something prevented flying on that? Could they put in some systems to fly flight crew at high cost on charter flights in rare cases?
Is this happening in part because everybody has a cameraphone? Perhaps there have been other fights over passenger removal and we just are only starting to see them?
It should be noted that this flight was operated by one of UA’s regional carriers, so the people involved were contractors, though they fly under the UA logo and UA sets the policies. So while UA is responsible, they have levels of control between them and what happened, making more opportunities for things to go wrong.