The customer service model at United Airlines

By | Category: Travel rumblings
A United flight taxing on the runway

United may carry fewer passengers after the PR disaster of a man being forcibly removed from one of its planes

You will probably have seen the social media images of a doctor being forcibly removed by police from a United Airlines flight. It even made the front page of the Financial Times.

From the airline’s point-of-view it is a public relations disaster.  This is an airline that claims, “Warm and welcoming is who we are.” It isn’t on this evidence.

The head of the company who less than a month ago was acclaimed as “PR Week’s Communicator of the year” issued a statement. No apology for the doctor’s treatment there. Is this the way fare-paying passengers should be treated? Is this customer service?

What are the rights of passengers in such circumstances?

Many airlines regularly overbook knowing that a percentage of passengers will not travel or one reason or another. There is an algorithm used which calculates on a route-by-route and time of day system what the no-show number is likely to be. That doesn’t stop well over 350,000 people each year being denied boarding on US owned airlines.

Generally the procedure (I speak from experience having been denied boarding by United) is that passengers are sometimes warned at check-in that the flight is extremely full and that some passengers would be asked if they wouldn’t mind flying later. But it is usually at the gate that this question is posed because, until the flight closes, any airline doesn’t really know how many passengers it will have.

At that point passengers are asked to step aside and the airline usually asks those who have just hand baggage. (no need to open the hold and remove bags) If there are no volunteers, an airline offers to put them on the next fight and will give vouchers for $400. Still no volunteers? It rises to about $800 and an upgrade to business class. If there is no flight until the following day, hotel accommodation and food vouchers are provided.

At that point, if no-one stands down, then passengers are selected usually based on how little they pay. Airlines don’t want to antagonise first or business class passengers or members of their frequent flyer club. So the people who have paid the least – usually the tickets are called “deep economy” are selected.

Never have I seen anybody dragged from a flight because no passenger would be allowed on a flight until volunteers have been selected or chosen. That is one of the odd things about this incident. Why hadn’t United sorted this out before passengers boarded?

In fairness to the airline, it wasn’t airline staff who removed the doctor so ignominiously, it was the police.

Not only does the airline have questions to answer but so have the police? And as for the airline’s customer service…

Could this happen in the UK or Europe?

Potentially yes. The difference here is that, the law – EU261 –stipulates what compensation there should be. Would such drastic action such as dragging a person up the airline aisle take place? I would like to think not.


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