OK, this time United is wrong

The other day we wrote about internet outrage, and how it has a life of its own, even when it’s based on incorrect information. It was about United Airlines making some teenagers change their clothes before boarding, and the story blew up before people realized that there was another piece to the puzzle and maybe United wasn’t really wrong.

Well, today United is in the news again, and this time it looks like they really screwed up. They overbooked a flight as is their practice, assuming that some passengers will be no-shows. The concept is that they should be able to sell the seats when this happens, rather than lose revenue on the no-shows. Every now and then, they get caught if there aren’t enough no-shows, and they have to bribe someone to wait for another flight.

This happened in Chicago the other day, and they had four more passengers than seats on a flight to Louisville. Three people agree to fly later, but one guy, who U.A. had determined should be the fourth, didn’t want to get off the plane. They would end up getting the police to come on the plane and physically drag the guy out of his seat and off the plane, literally kicking and screaming.

As we often say here at GOML, in the internet age there is usually more to the story than meets the eye. But there are three things about this whole deal that makes United look bad to me, if the story stands as is.

The first is the whole “overbooking” practice. In the old days, you used to be able to “reserve” a ticket and pay for it when you showed up at the airport. If you didn’t show, the airline didn’t get the money and the seat went empty. But now, you always pay for the ticket when you “reserve” it. In other words, you’re not reserving it at all – you’re buying it. If you don’t use it, the airline still has your money. Yes the seat goes unoccupied for that flight, but the airline hasn’t lost anything. Overbooking is now a way for the airline to get paid twice for the same seat. Am I wrong about this? Someone please correct me if so.

Second, the airlines’ ticketing agreement allows them to refuse boarding to passengers under lots of different scenarios, including overbooking. Fine, but they hadn’t refused boarding to this poor guy. He was already settled into his seat when the whole thing blew up. If you’re overbooked, you know it before boarding begins, and you can straighten it out in the gate area. No? You might have someone pitch a screaming fit there, but it beats a viral video of a guy being pulled out a seat that he paid for on a flight he needs to take. You would have thought they were taking him to the electric chair.

And third, this whole thing happened because United discovered they had four employees who they needed to get to Louisville. They were non-revenue-passengers (remember “nonrevs” from the whole dress-code incident?). So they throw off the paying customers to make way for their employees? This did not sit well with the other passengers who were seated near the “victim”, and they berated and shamed the U.A. nonrev employees who did fly.

Now there may yet be a twist that absolves United here – I have an open mind. Maybe the four employees were pilots who had to get to Louisville to fly a transplanted heart to its new owner. Maybe United knew that a plane-full of asthmatic orphans would be waiting on the ground for eight hours, or something, if they didn’t get this crew down there, and they figured “the greatest good for the greatest number”. I don’t know.

But, at first blush, this does seem like corporate greed and contempt for customers. To the barricades! Down with the Patriarchy!

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2 thoughts on “OK, this time United is wrong”

  1. Having flown almost a million miles on United during my jolly career I’m astounded that they let this PR nightmare happen. It makes no sense unless someone’s job was on the line and the gate was playing the system to help. Maybe those non-revs were in some serious trouble with management? We’ll they’re in a lot more now. Jobs will be lost in this snafu!
    Just a point regarding revenue in the airline biz: to recognize revenue the paying body has to be on the plane – butts in seats. No shows and cancellations go into a liability called deferred income. They have the cash but not the income.

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