Animal’s Hump Day News

Happy Hump Day!

Well, sometimes the friendly skies aren’t so friendly.  Excerpt:

The world is rightly abuzz over an awful incident yesterday in which a man was beaten and dragged off a plane by police at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for the crime of wanting to use the seat he’s paid for on a United Airline flight getting ready to leave for Louisville.

The man claimed to be a doctor who had patients to see the next morning, explaining why he neither took an initial offer made to everyone on the plane to accept $400 and a hotel room for the night in exchange for voluntarily giving up his seat nor wanted to obey a straight-up order to leave, in an attempt on United’s part to clear four seats for its own employees on the full flight.

No one considered even the $800 that was offered after everyone had boarded enough for the inconvenience, so United picked four seats and just ordered those in them to vacate. But the one man in question was not interested in obeying. (Buzzfeed reports, based on tweets from other passengers, that the bloodied man did eventually return to the plane.)

Here’s the part I’d like to comment on:

While United’s customer service policies in this case are clearly heinous and absurd, let’s not forget to also cast blame on the police officers who actually committed the brutality on United’s behalf. NPR reports that the cops attacking the man “appear to be wearing the uniforms of Chicago aviation police.”

Full disclosure:  I live in Denver; Denver is a major United hub; I have status and a metric buttload (that’s 1.173 British buttloads) of award miles on United.  So I fly United, and all in all my experiences with them have been pretty good.  With that in mind, it’s the bolded part I’ll comment on.  I agree with the folks at Reason.com more often than not, but in this case they’re just wrong.  Why?

Whenever anyone buys a plane ticket (whether they read it or not) agrees to that airline’s Contract of Carriage.  Part G of United’s contract reads:

All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.

Rule 25 refers to how much the airline has to reimburse you if  you get bumped.

Now, the fact that the passenger in question either didn’t read or didn’t care about the contract of carriage doesn’t excuse what really, really appears to be excessive force by the cops who removed him.  But at the point the plane’s captain – who, like the captain of a ship at sea, has pretty much universal control over what happens on his aircraft – asked him to leave and he refused, he was then committing trespass.

There’s some blame on both sides here, probably.  But you aren’t exempt from the provisions of a contract that you agreed to, just because you didn’t bother to read them.  United was within their rights to ask him to deplane.  He was wrong to refuse.

But, it’s fair to point out that United handled the situation really badly.  The optics will kill them – for a while.  Fortunately the American public, especially the social-media addicted, have the attention span of a blue-bottle fly.  By next week this will be all but forgotten.

  • Andrew Pearce

    OTOH, you have no way to purchase the ticket without agreeing to the contract, so it could be considered under duress maybe?

    • I suppose somebody (like me) whose livelihood depends on travel might be able to make that argument, but the counter is simply “you don’t have to fly.”

      Maybe there’s a niche for one of the airlines to change their policy – say their ticket prices are 5% higher than average, but they never overbook?

      • Andrew Pearce

        Change the policy: you book the flight, you’ve bought the seat. You can sell it on our SeatTrader app/site if you can’t make it, if you can find a buyer, but there’s no money back. So no overbooking needed.

        Will there be scalping? Sure, why not? Works for sports arena and Broadway show seats, why not for airlines too? (put me down for 500 seats for just before the holidays)

        Heck why not sell them on Amazon or on the stock market? They are essentially commodity items after all.

        Or go the other way, and sell airline seats like riding the bus. Show up, pay your fare, get on the plane. First come, first served. Hey, maybe they could do hanger straps riders too – no seat, but you get a handle to hang on to, and maybe a nylon sling you can half sit on. But save 25%!

        • Good ideas – all, unfortunately, up to the airlines. It’s been my experience that large companies, much like governments, tend to develop their own bureaucracies and become entrenched. There’s a lot of institutional inertia to overcome.

          • Andrew Pearce

            Tell me about it – I used to work for AT&T. Enormous ship, microscopic rudder. Could not, would not change direction. But every year they’d spend millions hiring outside analysts, and then reject every idea they came up with. Drove me nuts. Then the competition ate them alive. Oh boo hoo.

            • I’m one of those outside experts in many various companies (never for AT&T though.) Sometimes they listen, sometimes not.

              As a quality systems guy, I’m frequently in the position of telling folks stuff they don’t want to hear. But hey – if it was easy, anyone could do it.

              • Andrew Pearce

                I had real faith in that quality stuff. Back in the late 90s we got a different acronym every 6 months to a year to believe in. CQI, Sigma 6, be a Change Champion, something-or-other Level 5, process optimization, and a bunch of others. Most of it turned out to be just buzzwords, and an opportunity for bosses to write a new bunch of rules that would then be ignored. Not ignored by us worker bees, but by management, who would always panic and throw it overboard whenever they hit “red” status, which was nearly all the time, because the new paradigm would be adopted, here’s half a day of concept training, now make it work perfectly by this afternoon. Real training, ramp up time, waterfall analysis, even proper testing … never time for any of that! We have to meet this new arbitrary deadline, or else!

                Like you said, stuff they didn’t want to hear. I’m sure all of it
                had merit, but if you have a management culture that is used to just
                going through the motions and playing buzzword bingo at all their
                endless meetings, then nothing will ever get better.

                There was this joke going around in those days about a rowing race between the Japanese and the American corporations. The Americans lost the first year by a short distance, so their response was to replace half the rowers with more coxswains, all trained in “IRI”; Infinite Rower Improvement. They lost the second year by half a mile. So they fired all the rowers, saved a fortune on payroll, and distributed the savings as bonuses to the extra coxswains. It was sadly funny because it was too true.