United Airlines: The not-so-friendly skies
“It is the ‘re-accommodation’ heard ’round the world,” said Derek Thompson in TheAtlantic.com. United Airlines created its own public relations nightmare this week after a viral video showed a 69-year-old passenger being violently yanked from an overbooked flight. Passengers had boarded Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville when they were told four seats needed to be vacated for United crew members. The airline offered $800 and a hotel stay to people who would switch flights; when there were no takers, a computer selected four “volunteers” to be bumped. One, Dr. David Dao of Kentucky, refused—saying he was a doctor and needed to see his patients the next morning. United summoned airport police, who wrenched a screaming Dao from his seat—smashing his face into the armrest—before dragging him, limp and bloodied, down the aisle. United CEO Oscar Munoz made matters even worse by releasing a cold, Orwellian statement in which he apologized for having had to “re-accommodate” Dao.
This “horror show” was the product of the airline industry’s “ridiculous, outdated overbooking system,” said Daniel Gross in Slate.com. “For an airline, every empty seat on a flight is an economic tragedy.” So carriers routinely overbook on routes where there’s sufficient demand, betting that some passengers won’t show. When their bet doesn’t pay off, airlines simply bump people. Overbooking is just one of the countless indignities of modern air travel, said Tom Gara in BuzzFeed.com, “from the cramped seats to the constant delays.” After a decade of mergers and acquisitions that have seen 11 domestic airlines “shrunk down to five extremely big ones,” there’s simply not much competition—leaving customers with very few options. To put it simply: “Airlines treat you badly because they can.”
But for United, “the adage about a picture being worth a thousand words never seemed as true,” said Michael Hiltzik in LATimes.com. Without the “raw” video of this brutal assault, there might never have been a firestorm over United’s behavior. In retrospect, it would have been more sensible for United to increase the compensation to the legal cap of $1,350, which might have persuaded a few passengers to take the money. Instead, the company—which made $2.3 billion last year—decided to “cheap out.” Now United’s shares have slid 4 percent and its reputation has been badly damaged. “If there’s any justice in the world, now they’ll really pay.”