You have probably seen the viral video of a man being forcibly removed from a United flight in Chicago on Sunday. The flight was overbooked and, after receiving no volunteers to take a as much as $1,000 to take a later flight, United identified four passengers who would have to give up their seats for United employees.
Overbooking is very customer unfriendly - and very common
I have never liked the concept of overbooking. I understand the airlines' rationale for doing so, but I do not think it is fair to customers to sell them something then refuse to honor that sales commitment. This would be bad enough with any product, but airline customers make many other arrangements in conjunction with their flight reservation. If you miss a flight, you might miss a cruise departure, the last hours of a loved one's life, or key work responsibilities. That being said, overbooking is legal and the airline does have the right to not honor your reservation.
Had the incident not happened, there would have been no greater impact to United's customer service reputation than for any other instance of "involuntary de-boarding" due to overbooking. However, when the passenger in question refused to deplane, in the age where everyone carries a video camera and then posts those videos on social media, this situation blew up. That was predictably followed by the over-the-top outrage of the general public.
The general public is almost always going to overreact
Let's be honest. The general public is often ill-informed or doesn't fully understand the things businesses do or the things they rant about. But Joe Citizen does not really understand the commercial aviation business. I am always amazed when I ask a friend what type of plane they flew on and they have no clue! That does not make overbooking a good practice, but the lack of understanding of the underlying reasons, coupled with the social media spotlight, can result in a situation where people never rationally consider the facts of the case. Consider the comments about how the deplaned passengers were chosen "at random." I knew this was not true and that airlines have a process by which they identify which passenger will be deplaned.
What makes this particular situation more difficult for the flying public to understand is that the passengers were removed in order to make room for United employees. CNN reports that a crew was flying to Louisville to work another flight that would otherwise have to be cancelled. Though an inconvenience to the customers impacted, United was obviously trying to avoid inconveniencing an even larger number of its customers. However, the general public tunes into the evening news and sees a video that simply shows a man being roughly dragged off an airplane. No matter how justified, good luck convincing the general public that a big corporation was not merely abusing an innocent customer.
You are not going to win the argument with law enforcement
The man was not the only passenger that was asked to de-board. A couple was also asked and, while reportedly not happy, they complied with the request. And that is where this incident got out of hand. Whether we agree with the policy or not, United was well within its rights to de-board passengers. And when asked to deplane, deplane! You can probably get away with grumbling as you do so, ranting on social media, etc. but in virtually every scenario you will wind up leaving the aircraft one way or another. I understand that the man claimed he needed to be in Louisville the next morning. It's not anyone's place to dispute or question that, but let's not forget that everyone on that plane was trying to get somewhere else. The simple fact is that the man was wrong to refuse to deplane, both to the airline representatives and, most definitely, to the police officers.
Could the officers been less rough? Perhaps, but from all reports, the man did not do anything to cooperate. He simply allowed himself to be carried off the plane. You can't reasonable expect law enforcement officers to just throw up their hands and tell the flight attendant "Sorry, but he won't do what we say." That is not how it works. To be blunt, the man bears a share of the responsibility for how ugly this incident became. He refused to obey instructions from the flight crew. He refused to obey instructions from law enforcement. When you do either of those things, it's probably not going to end well.
This will blow over for United
As I noted, in today's society people find something to be outraged about, rightly or wrongly, almost every day. The United incident will soon pass from the spotlight. United Continental stock was down 3.7% this morning; if I were considering an investment in United, I would be quickly logging into my brokerage account. What I do hope lingers is motivation for the airline industry to reexamine the practice of overbooking. There needs to be a balance between profitable operations and good customer service, but I have to believe the balance can improved over the status quo.