Plenty of Blame to Go Around With the Passenger Dragged Off a United Airlines Airplane

A nother day, another airline, another debacle: the incident du jour is one of a passenger who was dragged off of an airplane operated by United Airlines on Sunday evening, April 9, 2017.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around With the Passenger Dragged Off a United Airlines Airplane

The following summary of information was derived from numerous articles from numerous multiple sources…

An airplane — which was to operate as United Airlines flight 3411 from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to Louisville International Airport — was first reported as overbooked; but the airplane was simply filled to capacity with passengers…

…but because four members of a flight crew were “out of position” and needed to be accommodated on the airplane to get to Louisville on time to offer service on a different flight — and not wanting to cause a possible “domino effect” of delays for potentially hundreds of passengers should those four members of a flight crew not arrive on time for the flight to which they were assigned — employees of United Airlines first offered $400.00 in compensation plus meals and lodging for the night to passengers to voluntarily leave the airplane and be accommodated on a flight for the next day; but no one accepted the offer. The offer then increased the offer to $800.00 in vouchers — but still no one accepted the offer; and the internal guidelines of United Airlines supposedly strictly prohibits a gate agent from further increasing the offer to passengers.

The decision was reached to randomly select four passengers via computer to be involuntarily denied boarding — except for one problem: passengers had already boarded the airplane, rather than simply stay behind at the boarding area of the gate of the airport.

One passenger — a male doctor who needed to be at a hospital the next day — reportedly was very upset at being selected to leave the airplane involuntarily and supposedly was yelling at members of the flight crew; although at least one witness to the incident denied that the man behaved in an inappropriate manner.

Videos of the Incident

Passengers who recorded the incident on video have encouraged their videos to be shared — but none of the videos show how the incident started.

The following video was recorded by Jayse D. Anspach, who posted it to his Twitter account:

The husband of Kaylyn Davis was a passenger aboard the airplane on that flight; and she shared videos and a photograph via her Twitter account:

Audra D. Bridges has a video of the incident posted to her Facebook account.

Please share this video. We are on this flight. United airlines overbooked the flight. They randomly selected people to kick off so their crew could have a seat. This man is a doctor and has to be at the hospital in the morning. He did not want to get off. We are all shaky and so disgusted. #unitedairways -To use this video in a commercial player or in broadcasts, please email licensing@storyful.com-

Posted by Audra D. Bridges on Sunday, April 9, 2017

 

What the Chief Executive Officer of United Airline Had to Say

At first, Oscar Munoz — who is the chief executive officer of United Airlines — initially said pertaining to the incident via Twitter:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and con dust our own detailed revue of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

— Oscar Munos, CEO, United Airlines

The following is a letter to employees from Oscar Munoz as obtained by Jon Ostrower — who is the aviation editor at CNN — and shared via this “tweet”:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.

Oscar

Summary of Flight 3411

  • On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.
  • We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.
  • He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
  • Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
  • Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.

Involuntary Denied Boarding Rules

According to this official document from the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Transportation of the United States, these are the rules to which airlines must abide with regard to compensation for passengers who are involuntary denied boarding:

The minimum denied boarding compensation for domestic travel occurring on or after August 25, 2015, increased to 200 percent of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $675 (from $650), if the carrier offers alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the passenger’s destination or first stopover more than one hour but less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight; and 400 percent of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $1,350 (from $1,300), if the carrier does not offer alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s destination or first stopover less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight for domestic flights. For international flights departing from a U.S. airport, the amount of denied boarding compensation shall be no less than 200 percent of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $675 (from $650), if the carrier offers alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the passenger’s destination or first stopover more than one hour but less than four hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight; and 400 percent of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $1,350 (from $1,300), if the carrier does not offer alternate transportation that is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s destination or first stopover less than four hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight. 80 Fed. Reg. 30144. In August 2011, the DBC limit increased from $400 or $800 depending on the length of the bumped passenger’s delay to $650/$1,300. 76 Fed. Reg. 23110.

Again, the next available flight was not until the next day; so in this case, the part of the rule pertaining to more than four hours applies.

Based on those rules, United Airlines has its policy pertaining to involuntary denied boarding of a passenger in accordance to its contract of carriage — as well as to its commitment to customers.

Who Is to Blame — and What Should Have Happened?

This whole incident is so ridiculous that I did not want to even cover this story. I said that there was plenty of blame to go around; but I do not know all of the facts definitively — but based on what I have read from many media sources, here is how I believe the blame should be placed:

  • On United Airlines for not further increasing the compensation despite its supposedly rigid policy — even though the flight might have been delayed, as offering enough compensation and slightly delaying the flight would have most likely cost significantly less than all of the negative publicity which United Airlines has had to endure just today alone
  • On United Airlines for exacerbating the situation: even though the airline acted within legal boundaries of Rule 25 of its contract of carriage and that passengers are supposed to unequivocally obey the commands of members of the flight crew, employees should have simply found another passenger to remove from the airplane rather than have called in law enforcement for backup
  • On the unidentified passenger in question for not simply following the directions of members of the flight crew; and supposedly creating enough of a scene which prompted someone from United Airlines to call in law enforcement — rather than leave the airplane quietly and voice concerns with employees of the airline
  • On the law enforcement officer for unnecessarily using excessive force on a man — who is 69 years of age; paid for his airfare; and sat in his assigned seat — to the point where he was bleeding and publicly humiliated; and the law enforcement officer in question was reportedly either suspended or placed on leave
  • On the passengers — surely one of them aboard a full aircraft could have on second thought volunteered to leave the aircraft after all
  • On the media — yes, including myself — for giving this story substantially more attention than it deserves

Summary

This is a classic example of the exacerbation of a situation which went unchecked until it was far out of control. The impression by many people is about how horrible United Airlines is to customers; how we live in a police state where in the United States; how no one came to the aid of the passenger in question; and blah blah blah and etceteras ad nauseum.

Rather, this was basically a string of simple yet unfortunate incidents which led to a situation that spiraled so out of control that I will bet anyone even remotely involved is embarrassed to have been a party — or a witness — to it…

…and the unfortunate part is that a simple gesture on the part of someone — anyone — could have derailed this debacle from reaching a boiling point. Common sense should have prevailed in not allowing this incident to escalate the way it did in the first place.

Until this incident is investigated to understand as best as possible what happened, Oscar Munoz really had no choice but to stand behind his employees. To not do so would leave employees of United Airlines feeling that no one in upper management stands behind them, which would most likely lead to morale issues.

Fortunately, this is an unusual incident: there are usually a few passengers for every flight who would be more than willing to take the $800.00 or $1,000.00 to have some dinner, relax in a hotel, and catch a flight the next day. Perhaps United Airlines could have also thrown in a guaranteed seat in the first class cabin on the flight the next day if space was available.

Somewhere in all of the hyperbole and supposition throughout the media and social media is the truth — and I can only hope that this incident becomes a learning experience from which everyone can benefit.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

22 thoughts on “Plenty of Blame to Go Around With the Passenger Dragged Off a United Airlines Airplane”

  1. WMLA44 says:

    I have to strongly disagree with you Brian. Munoz didn’t have to attack and blame the customer in his memo to employees in order to support his employees. He could have simply supported his employees while promising to get to the bottom of what happened and make this right for everyone involved. But Munoz is from Continental and so was Jeff Smisek, his fired/forced to resign predecessor, who also treated customers poorly. Ever since the “merger” Continental executives seemed to treat the “merger” as a “hostile takeover” of United and ever since treated United customers like second class citizens giving higher benefits to Continental legacy customers. After that faded, these Continental executives began to treat all United customers as if they had disdain for them and it showed with uncompetitive profits and uncompetitive customer satisfaction ratings. Munoz’s memo clearly demonstrates he has nothing but contempt for United customers. We are to blame for his inconvenience. But wait til another problem arises and he will find another scapegoat to blame, maybe employees next time. But its never United’s executives that are at fault. United’s profits are at an all time high, yet still not as proportionally profitable as the other carriers. And United’s customer satisfaction ratings is dead last compared with the other legacy airlines along with the highest rate of boarding denials. Go figure! But again, despite high profits, among the legacy carriers, United is slowest to improve its lounges, upgrade its planes’ interiors, upgrade its food offerings, etc., etc. More and more proof that among the legacy carriers, United has a particular dislike for its own customers, making upgrades and changes only when it is absolutely necessary or glaringly embarrassing. Munoz should have supported his own employees, but he didn’t have to trash his customers to do it. This is not lost on United’s employees. They too treat customers with disrespect and disdain. And THAT IS WHY you had the incident on Sunday. Sure it was Republic Airlines employees and plane, but it was United’s policies and procedures that guide each employee and sub-contractor to treat the customer as a piece of sh*# instead !

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Actually, we are basically in agreement, WMLA44.

      I only said that “Until this incident is investigated to understand as best as possible what happened, Oscar Munoz really had no choice but to stand behind his employees. To not do so would leave employees of United Airlines feeling that no one in upper management stands behind them, which would most likely lead to morale issues.” A leader in a company must let employees know without a doubt that he or she has their backs until the definitive proven facts of the incident are revealed…

      …but I purposely did not address the issue of the internal memo “attacking” the customer only because the amateur videos technically support the verbiage of the memo — which anyone can tell was very carefully worded; and likely not by Oscar Munoz himself — and cannot be disputed in general. For example, the passenger indeed did refuse to comply with not only the instructions of members of the flight crew; but also members of law enforcement.

      Despite that, I honestly believe that whoever called law enforcement as backup did not expect what had happened to happen in the first place.

      Now, if you were to ask if I believe the passenger deserved the treatment he received, I would emphatically say no. If you were to ask if I believe that United Airlines should have listened to the customer as to why he was so adamant about not wanting to leave the airplane — as well as treated him better — you would get an emphatic “yes” from me.

      As I said, there is plenty of blame to go around…

  2. Kent Tunks says:

    “One the passengers — surely one of them aboard a full aircraft could have on second thought volunteered to leave the aircraft after all”
    I do believe Mr. Cohan”s thinking here is not logical.All the other passengers had already refused
    to be bumped. They had informed the United people that they wanted to stay on the plane.
    Yet Mr. Cohen would have them change their minds.The whole bumping thing was clearly United’s
    fault. But Mr. Cohen believes it was up to one of the passengers to change their mind so that United’s
    problem could be solved. So I guess he believes that the wishes of United trump the rights of the passengers. Well, boys and girls it ain’t so. Why he rushes to the defense of United is beyond me.
    Unless he is paid by United to plead their cause. And that kind of thing is certainly not unknown
    in the world of the internet.It seems to me that his whole article is slanted to show that this
    whole bumping thing is really minor and no fault of United’s. Well, I certainly think it is entirely
    the fault of United. And I bet the majority of folks would agree with me.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      “Believes that the wishes of United trump the rights of the passengers”?

      “Rushes to the defense of United”?

      “Paid by United to plead their cause”?

      Did you even read the entire article, Kent Tunks?

  3. Tim says:

    Again putting the blame on the passenger… He was not IDB, he was boarded so why should he give up his seat?
    Not complying to crew instructions? Where in this whole story was this man a threat to security? Why can a man not stand its grounds and say: you boarded me, you have my money, this is my seat. I would have also refused to give up my seat, especially in this situation.

    United is solely to blame for this. And the police attacking him, well it is America so that does not supprise me one bit. Thank god I live in civilized Europe.

  4. Vicente says:

    There’s a place for enforcement, in removing a DANGEROUS passenger. However a passenger sitting in their assigned seat is a danger to nobody. UA let passengers board. Then AFAICT from abpve fragmentary and contradictory staff reports, 4 crew waltzed up and suddenly everything went to hell.

    Entirely the fault of staff “lead” who decided to call in enforcement, rather than find some alternative solution. Always at the center of these “spiralling out of control” situations, there is one person making key decisions, and I think you are bending over backward looking at the minor things.

    I wonder which crew got stuck in the bloody seat, I’m sure they have a story!

  5. matthew says:

    Good commentary Brian.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Thank you, matthew.

  6. Lisa says:

    This is what is wrong with our society..laws/rules are put in place for a reason. Until adults start acting like responsible adults and following those laws/rules…not thinking they are meant for everyone else except me (because I’m a doctor)…we will continue to have chaos…adults need to learn that life is not always fair and for you to pitch a temper tantrum when you don’t get your way is behaving like a toddler…mind boggling that “adults” are supporting this sort of behavior. Why have rules/laws at all?? Let’s just all do what we feel is “right” at the moment and we’ll see how that works out Yes, that’s a good idea….said no one ever.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      My thoughts and feelings are somewhere between yours and those of Felix, Tim and Vincente, Lisa.

      While I certainly do not believe that people should disobey rules and the law to suit their needs, they also should not simply give in anytime they are told what to do and they believe that they are in the right.

      Laws and rules are in place for a reason; but they are also created by fallible human beings and therefore are not perfect. That is why laws and rules are subject to continuous change; and that is why I hope that this unfortunate incident becomes a learning experience which may lead to a refinement in policy at United Airlines — and possibly a change in the law in the United States.

  7. Felix says:

    Strongly disagree with your post. It was not that he was denied boarding since he already was in his seat. It you look further into United’s terms, a passenger can only be removed from an airplane for committing certain acts which he did not. His was removed from an airplane which is totally different than denial of boarding.

    United’s big mistake was that they did this to a plane that was already fully loaded with confirmed passengers to make room for 4 unconfirmed passengers. Nowhere in their terms of carriage does it state than can do this.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      You do raise a good point, Felix. Thank you.

  8. rick b says:

    Doctors can lose thousands a day if they run their own practice and a puny $800 won’t make up for it

    I stand with that guy. This so far looks like a case of United screwing up tjeir operations and asking the passengers to suffer. They should have paid another airline to get that crew where it needs to go.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      The key words in your comment is “so far”, rick b.

      None of us know the entire story as most of us were not there — I am not even sure if those people who were there know the entire story — but what you wrote sure seems like the scenario which occurred…

      …and if it is indeed the case, let us see if United Airlines owns up to its responsibility.

      I personally hope the doctor was more concerned about the well-being of his patients than about the money he might have lost…

  9. Sasidhar says:

    I was going to write a post on my blog talking about the overreaction to this story (after I posted an article putting the majority of the blame on United) but you did such an excellent job that I really didn’t see the point.

    I couldn’t have said it better. While United should take the lion’s share of the blame in this story, this issue has been hijacked by SJWs.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I almost did not write this article because so many others have written about it, Sasidhar — but I did only to say what was on my mind.

      I appreciate your thoughts; but I encourage you to please write your article anyway. Every weblog has a different audience; and I am certain that your readers want to know the thoughts which are on your mind.

  10. Jake says:

    Oscar Munoz and his henchmen are criminals. They should be prosecuted and banned from ever working in the airline industry.

  11. Mike says:

    A lot of investors didn’t find this any more complicated than I did. United’s stock lost $1.3 billion in share value for a reason — the incident reeks of bad management practices. A paying customer bought his ticket and boarded when he was supposed and sat where he was supposed to. Then it went sideways. United brought the rest of this all down on its own head, and to the extent slavish devotion to its own rules and regulations caused that to happen, then those rules and regulations are the first things that need to be scrapped. Management needs to permit the gate agent to bump that $800 offer north, in $50 increments if necessary, until someone raised their hand. BTW, I am assuming the next-day passengers departing Louisville were boarded on that flight, even though, as I understand events, the replacement crew would not have arrived in time to be the ones flying it. If the Louisville flight actually did depart on time the next day, well, it makes everything that happened even worse.
    .

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      I cannot disagree with anything you said, Mike.

      Capping that offer of compensation now seems quite petty upon reflection, doesn’t it?!?

  12. Assuming the data in your post is correct about United’s internal policy stopping at $800, then that’s a really bad policy, especially in this case. Based on the involuntary boarding rules, and based on how far after his scheduled arrival this passenger would eventually arrive in KY, they have to pay 4X their ticket (up to $1350) to each of these passengers for being involuntarily denied boarding. So they should have AT LEAST gone up to $1350 before giving up. I bet this policy gets changed after this. I also bet every other airline is reviewing their policies in this regard as well.

    But the other commenter is wrong when they say that what they did violates United’s contract of carriage. It says specifically that

    “UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons: …. Unforeseeable Conditions”

    In this case, they did not foresee that they would have crewmembers present themselves for boarding AFTER the plane had already been boarded. I’m as curious as the next person as to why these crewmembers were presented so late. Did they just sit in the employee lounge and show up at the last minute? Did they show up 30 mins prior to departure only to find the plane already boarded? (Happens to me all the time.) Were they not expected on the flight because their incoming flight was late, but they managed to make it? I want to know WHY this situation happened.

    BTW, that’s more blame. If these crewmembers had presented themselves in a timely manner, the gate agents would have known they had an overboarding situation prior to boarding.

    But once it happened, UA has an “oh crap” moment. They either boot some people off or they will have a delayed flight. And then we have the cascading “perfect storm” of events that led to what happened. But the force Majeure clause applies in this situation for sure. This was clearly an incredibly braindead move, but it was not a violation of the CoC.

    1. Brian Cohen says:

      Those are good points, William Curtis Preston.

      At the time I wrote the article, I did not know the circumstances pertaining to why the members of the flight crew were late and did not let the gate agents know until the last minute — assuming that that indeed was the case.

      Plenty of blame to go around. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  13. Jeff Darcy says:

    No, passengers are not unequivocally required to obey the instructions of the flight crew while the aircraft is still at the gate. The law you’re thinking of is 14 CFR 91.11 but it relies on specific definitions of “crewmember” and “flight time” that are not applicable until the aircraft starts moving under its own power.

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/1.1

    There is no justification under either the contract of carriage or transportation law for what United/Republic and Chicago aviation security did. They were totally out of line. Also, that Lousiville flight crew has a lot to answer for. The most likely explanation for them showing up at 3411 *before the 3411 crew knew about them* is that 3411 wasn’t their original flight. Why did they miss the one they were supposed to be on? The fact that United hasn’t given a reason (e.g. traffic delays) suggests that the reason is not a good one. How are they not on your list?

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