17 APRIL 2017


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Article from BTNews 17 APRIL 2017

COMMENT: The unfriendly skies

For our reader's views go to the end of this piece.

BTN last week drew attention to the media hostility some US major airlines have been facing in what has been called their headlong pursuit for profit. Had we known what was about to unfold on United Airlines Flight 3411, we would have been rather more direct. 

In the era of the internet, social media and instant analysis, someone should have known that removing a passenger forcibly from an aircraft was hardly likely to go unnoticed. For anyone in the public eye, there is one golden rule: Everybody these days has a camera, complete with video and sound. Even if this were not the case, there seems little excuse for what happened.

Yes, passengers are sometimes unco-operative. Some can be belligerent, as many cabin crew know to their cost. But knowing how to handle a situation such as that on 3411 is supposed to be part of the training.   

The airline, which once invited passengers to “fly the friendly skies of United”, on Friday changed its policy on commuting staff, saying it will now require them and crew members to check into flights 60min before departure.

It comes in the wake of the now-infamous incident in which Dr David Dao, a paying customer who had already boarded, was removed from the aircraft by law enforcement officers. United had asked unsuccessfully for a volunteer to give up a seat for a commuting crew member.

As the US news network CNN reported, it is legal to bump a ticket-holding customer but not customary to remove someone once he or she has boarded. “Had the commuting crew member been required to check in for the flight before passengers began boarding, United could have denied a customer boarding before he or she was seated,” the network added. 

In a statement replete with PR gloss – which many believe has been part of the problem all along – United said blandly: "This [policy change] ensures situations like flight 3411 never happen again. This is one of our initial steps in a review of our policies in order to deliver the best customer experience."

Also on Friday, United CEO Oscar Munoz backtracked on earlier comments made in a letter to staff in which he said the passenger had become “disruptive and belligerent” and had left crew with no other option than calling police. Munoz added in the letter: "Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this."

On Friday, he apologised for the incident, saying: “It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

The measures, he said, would include a “thorough review” of crew movement, policies for incentivising volunteers in these situations, how United handles oversold situations and an examination of how the airline partnered with airport authorities and local law enforcement. The results of the review would be made public by the end of this month, he added.

BTN readers have been among those joining the chorus of condemnation against United. The incident is now the subject not only of a massive internal inquiry at the airline but also possible legal proceedings on Dr Dao’s behalf, both of which will have a bearing on the aftermath of what happened.

For now, as one reader said, it seems to be “yet another example of customer service going out of the window in the headlong focus on profit and cost reduction. United knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing!”

BTN agrees there are some key questions requiring answers:

Who was responsible for crew rostering and planning?

Where was the captain of the flight in all this? He has the authority for the aircraft.

Why did United not block off the seats for positioning crew earlier?

Why not charter a business jet to position the crew?

Can the airline be charged with common assault?

In legal terms, what is the value of an air ticket?

We invite your answers.

Index/Home page

OUR READERS' FINEST WORDS (All times and dates are GMT)

All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum

Sheila Randall, Georgia, U.S.A.

I believe there is something called "Passenger Rights". It obviously has no influence at all. What happened to 'customer service'?!! U.A. and now A.A. seem to have lost the plot. There has been an incident on A.A. (who have apologised profusely and tried to make things right for the passenger and her two children.

Josephine Bacon, LONDON

I had an unpleasant experience when flying back to the UK with American Airlines during the month after 9/11. A small group of us, five people, apparently chosen at random from the passenger list were removed from the line just before boarding the aircraft and taken behind a screen. We were told to remove our shoes and they collected our passports. What was scary is that we were all of us white and all the people "interrogating" us were black. Finally, we were allowed to board the plane, and our names were read out over the loudspeaker to tell us to collect our passports, although the crew must have known where we were sitting. I don't know what the other passengers thought we had done, but it was very unpleasant.

Malcolm Ginsberg, UK

The Mowlem water bus ran from the Charrington Pier to embankment with various stops.

Graham Greenwood, UK, Redditch

This situation was not overbooking of the seated passengers, but idiot staff trying to remove passengers, to accommodate United staff at the last minute. The airline should know how to roster crew and have seats booked to re position them, then this situation would not have occurred as it did. But they would have an overbooked plane to sort out before boarding passengers!

John Burke, Sussex

Remember Jack Lemmon as the sad PR man with an airline account in 'Days of Wine and Roses'? United is now seeking a new PRO!

Renito Schamann, Barcelona

With the airplane on the ground with doors open and engines shutdown the authority of the captain is limited with regards to problems with passengers like this. But later when it became a unruly pax like situation, then the captain has to decide rather or not to call the police. Again, company rules then apply. Thanks.

franco mancassola, USA

The most striking part of the fiasco that occurred with Dr. Dao was not only the legality of the UAL procedure in removing passengers from overbooked flights, but the total absence of common sense of the United staff, from the Captain to the Station Manager, the Security etc... It would have been simpler and more economic to hire a chauffeured car (only 4 hour drive) or even charter a small aircraft. But then again, there isn't any amount of training that can replace common sense. And the incredible part is that, for their lack of judgment and clumsy application of the dubious UAL procedure, they get a letter of commendation from their CEO. One cannot make up this stuff. Management of UAL failed to realizes that responsibility begins, rather than end, when the passenger boards the aircraft. It seems to me that UAL has forgotten a fundamental principle of business: "Never irritate the minds that you are trying to influence" -- in the airlines' case, the passengers.