ATW Editor's Blog

United bumped passenger video damages all airlines

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The news and video that emerged today of a passenger being roughly dragged from a United Airlines aircraft for no other reason than the airline had oversold the flight is truly disturbing.

Who can honestly look at those images and not shudder? How could such tactics be justified when the incident that started it was caused by the airline, which overbooked the flight and apparently relies on bumping its customers – say again, customers – to get its own employees to their place of work?

Even if you feel the passenger being involuntarily bumped was partly to blame by refusing to leave his seat, does United believe it was okay to let all its other customers watch a fellow passenger being dragged down the aisle, midriff bared, face bloodied?

Clearly, United CEO Oscar Munoz does not feel this was okay. “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 conduct our own detailed review of what happened,” he said in a statement, although that was issued only after public furor erupted across social media.

Munoz has been working hard at restoring employee morale and customer service since he took the helm from former CEO Jeff Smisek, who basically tanked both.

But this incident shows how much work Munoz and his leadership team still have to accomplish.

No explanation has been given as to why United gate agents allowed all people to board before they required seats to be given up involuntarily. Or why the airline was relying on a customer give-up situation to get its employees to their workplace.

Aside from the very real damage United has done to itself with this incident, this will hurt its Star Alliance partners – airlines that promise “seamless service” across the partner airlines. Can you imagine ANA, Singapore Airlines or Lufthansa contemplating whether one of their customers might be exposed to this type of “service” if they fly on a United-operated aircraft with a boarding pass that carries their brand?

It also hurts the airline industry generally. In the US, in particular, it’s exactly this sort of incident that consumer advocates, the travel media and congressmen love to wave as proof that more rules and regulations are needed to oversee airlines.

It’s misguided to treat the airline industry differently from other service businesses. They should be allowed to charge ancillary fees and to offer different price points for different levels of service. They should not be heavily fined for delays that are caused by factors outside of their control, such as severe weather, ash clouds or chronic air traffic congestion. Airline executives should be free to manage their business models and product offerings in whatever way they see as most competitive. And airlines should not be lumped with excess and often hidden government fees and taxes.

But any airline that is so clueless and ill-equipped that its passenger-facing agents inflict this sort of treatment on their customers to get their own staff to work deserves all the rules, fees, fines and public condemnation that can be rained down on it.

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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