What all the recent United Airlines headlines may mean for travelers

By | May 1st, 2017

Now that the dust has almost settled from United Airlines’ infamous passenger-expulsion incident, travelers are left with several important and largely unanswered questions about how this kerfuffle will change air travel — if it does at all.

In case you missed it, United has been under fire for calling law enforcement to have a passenger, David Dao, forcibly removed from a flight from Chicago to Louisville earlier this month. The ejection, captured on video and widely shared on social media, caused an uproar and triggered a round of airline industry self-examination — and self-flagellation — that has continued.

But was the Dao case a watershed moment comparable to the series of passenger-stranding incidents in 2007? Those highly publicized events led to new rules that prohibit airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers.

The initial changes seemed positive. United, which may have violated its own contract by removing Dao, apologized repeatedly and quickly changed an internal policy to make it more difficult to bump a passenger to accommodate a crew member. American updated its customer contract, promising it wouldn’t “involuntarily remove” a revenue passenger who has already boarded to make room for another passenger. And Delta Air Lines said it increased the maximum it could offer passengers when a flight is overbooked from $1,350 to $9,950.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has announced plans for an oversight hearing in the coming weeks to “learn more” about consumer issues related to air travel. Consumer advocates will watch that meeting closely to get a sense of whether more regulation is on the horizon, or the hearing is just for show.

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Legislation is already in the works, too. One potential congressional bill, called the Customers Not Cargo Act of 2017, which has not yet been introduced, would revise regulations relating to oversold flights to prohibit the forcible removal of passengers.

Specifically, it would require the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines, to establish standards for resolving oversales once an aircraft has been boarded through the provision of escalating incentives to passengers to encourage voluntary re-booking. It would also require an air carrier, to the extent practicable, to resolve issues related to overselling a flight before boarding.

Given the amount of public attention on this issue, the Cargo Act may get some legislative traction now, or more likely, when the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill comes before Congress later this year.

Would the proposed passenger bill’s language really solve the overbooking problem? Unlikely, to hear experts talk about it.

“Overbooking is common,” says David Corsun, who directs the University of Denver’s school of hospitality management. “It’s an effort to maximize revenue from a perishable inventory, like an airline seat. Since people often no-show, overbooking occurs to avoid idle inventory and a lost revenue opportunity.”

Corsun, who says he has been bumped from flights, says the system almost always works, ensuring that every plane flies full. Incidents like the Dao expulsion are extremely rare, meaning that overbooking, for the most part, is a sound industry practice. And why fix something if it isn’t broken?

“There’s no easy answer here,” he says.

“The truth about overbooking is it’s going to become more prominent,” says Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton. “In today’s world, the airlines are only going to make money when they’re running at 80 percent capacity or above.”

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Indeed, overbooking is such an accepted practice that even the federal government has given it an apparent stamp of approval. There’s a body of federal regulation that determines how much compensation an airline pays someone who is denied boarding. Airlines report their overbooking numbers to the government every month, which publishes the numbers online.

“Overbooking, overall, has worked well,” says Hani Mahmassani, head of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, who is quick to note, however, that the Dao episode was “unacceptable.” It even benefits some air travelers, who “wouldn’t mind leaving a couple of hours later to collect a meaningful bonus.”

After numerous conversations with air travelers following the expulsion incident, it’s clear that while passengers are unhappy with the airline practice of overselling seats, a much bigger problem looms.

“It seems like there are so many aspects of flying today that are accepted as fact by too many airline passengers,” says Tricia Kalinowski, a retired grocery store manager and frequent air traveler from Blaine, Minn.

That includes not only overbooking but a corporate culture that allows a passenger to be dragged off a flight. Stories about customers being treated rudely are so common these days, they barely raise an eyebrow for consumer advocates — or resonate with the flying public. No wonder, then, that the airline industry remains one of the worst-rated businesses in America, when it comes to customer service.

“Airlines need to continue to pay attention to their overall customer experience,” says Peter Vlitas, a senior vice president of airline relations at Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency network. They can take meaningful steps now to do that, he adds. For example, when it comes to oversales, “that might mean scaling back the percentage of oversold seats or increasing compensation for passengers voluntarily taking alternate flights.”

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If nothing else, the Dao story put the spotlight on the systemic abuses that airlines unload on their paying passengers and the extent to which that attitude has been normalized. Undoing that is beyond the scope of a single bill. It will take a concerted passenger rights movement, more public outrage and a penitent airline industry to pull that off. And so far, that hasn’t happened.

  • deemery

    Change is definitely needed, and a Passenger Bill of Rights similar to the European regulation would be A Good Thing. But at the end of the day, if the crew asks a passenger to leave the aircraft, for whatever reason, that’s what the passenger needs to do. S/he can take it up with the airline, or even through the courts, after they leave the plane.

    I still have no sympathy for Dr Dao and what I see as an immature tantrum, regardless of how much he was within legal rights to remain. I know that’s an unpopular view.

  • Hanope

    I don’t think crew being able to ask a passenger to leave ‘for any reason’ is a good idea. I think there should be a reasonable reason, and somewhere where such reasons are identified, rather than just being up to the power trip of some FA. Airline travel is very different from say being removed from a store. One usually does not have the ability to get an immediate replacement flight because the flights are booked so tightly and there are few flights. its quite a distance between a passenger who’s not happy with his flight situation, and one who’s really going to be “a danger” to the passengers and/or crew, yet right now FAs can remove someone who shows any sign of being upset, even if the person will likely just stew in his seat during the flight.

  • michael anthony

    This happened in Chicago, where I live, thus it was heavily covered on the news. Not one passenger in the plane said Dao had a tantrum. In fact, they said he was calm and friendly as the interaction began. But, as many pass said, security started laughing at his responses. They escalated they situation. I wonder how many people would calmly react to something they viewed as a total injustice?

  • michael anthony

    I wish there were stats on how many people really “don’t show” for their flights. I know it used to be high, but those were the days you got refunds too. It’s like Bereavement fares disappearing because of pax abuse? It’s always been accepted as fact, but I never remember there ever being any facts presented. One airline just dropped them, because they were making fares better across the board. Yet, people to this day believe it was because of pax abuse. It’s like this story. It says there’s many no shows. If true, they ought to be able to prove. I just can’t believe people throw away money, now that refunds are like pulling teeth.

  • finance_tony

    If you want to get officious about it, no crew ever asked Dao to leave. Gate agents and their supervisors are not airline crew.

  • Alan Gore

    Train wrecks like the Dao incident could be avoided if that PBOR were to include a mandatory reporting system for passenger ejections. Most ejections are for valid cause; when a passenger freaks out inflight, that person represents a danger to everyone else on the flight. A reporting system would protect the carrier when such incidents happen.

    But the reason Dr Dao has become our hero is that he was a totally normal passenger, ready to fly, until United chose to single him out for bullying after their own sloppy crew positioning procedures made it necessary to pull an additional four pax after everyone had boarded. Even then, United could have peacefully rectified the situation by continuing the oversell buyback auction with higher offers. In a plane load of people, there shouldn’t have been any trouble finding pax willing to deplane for $1000 or $2000 plus an overnight stay.

    But no, they chintzed out on their own established procedure. It is United, not Dr Dao, who went ballistic and embarrassed itself in front of the whole world. May the walloping settlement they had to pay be an object lesson in the need for travel companies to start treating their customers better. And may it lead to the Passenger Bill of Rights we sorely need.

  • Jeff W.

    Let us be clear, the plane was not overbooked. The airline needed to remove some passengers for dead heading crew. The new crew was needed for the next flight, as their schedules are highly regulated. Remove four now or keep them on board, meaning the next flight with 70 passengers is canceled. There is a difference.

    Having said that, it should have never come to what had happened on that plane. If United/Republic (it was the regional partner Republic that did this, but United is on livery so they get the blame. Maybe a United gate agent, if he/she was involved.) knew they needed fresh crew, that should have been sorted out before anyone got on plane. No excuses. If they couldn’t tempt anyone with $800 in funny money, should have upped the offer. And why would they bump him and not also his wife? Split up a group. Yes, they are adults, but still?

    And yes, the doctor should have left when asked to leave, but the Chicago Aviation Police (not the Chicago Police Dept.) should not have manhandled him like that.

    So hopefully some good will come out of this. It has to…

  • James

    And why would they bump him and not also his wife? Split up a group. Yes, they are adults, but still?

    This is where any involuntary policy gets tricky. Why should the odds of a passenger being involuntarily bumped be dependent on the size of the party? Is that fair to the solo passengers? (And keep in mind, many people flying on business are likely flying alone) I suspect you’ll need a rule not separating minor children from an adult traveling partner.

  • James

    But no, they chintzed out on their own established procedure. It is
    United, not Dr Dao, who went ballistic and embarrassed itself in front
    of the whole world.

    It is interesting to note how cheap United’s process apparently was. Milecards.com has an article about voluntary bumping, and of all the airlines flying domstically, United is the cheapest, paying an average of $573 for voluntary bumping. Even bête noire Spirit pays more: $655. Now, that may reflect how willing Unite passengers are to jump ship. ;-) Indeed, only Delta and the regional feeders have a higher voluntary bump rate per 10,000 passengers.

  • Bill___A

    Cancellation fees are supposed to take care of “no show” expenses on the economy fares, and the much higher “full fare” prices are supposed to take care of the costs for overbooking on the full fares. All of this talk about needing to overbook is a load of crap. However, the “David Dao” flight, for the gazillionth time, wasn’t a case of overbooking but of a poor planning on the part of an airline regarding crew assignments. You can’t tell me that those four crew members found out they were going AFTER the passengers boarded. As to the antics of Dr. Dao, although he may have paved the way for some changes, there is no justification for fighting the airport police. If the flight crew asks you to get off, and you don’t want to, make your case, but ultimately you must follow their decision and deal with it later.

  • Bill___A

    From what I saw, he was like a two year old. Things generally don’t escalate like this. As they say, it takes two to tango. I will be flying United myself and have experienced good service. Not fond of United Express though.

  • Kairho

    Few no-shows are traveling on non-refundable fares these days.

  • Jeff W.

    United, as do most airlines, have policies that give priority to minors (aka families traveling together) as well as disabled passengers. Of course, United had policies in place that were obviously not followed that allowed this to happen.

    But yes, the involuntary policies get tricky. If you only need to one seat, you are going to pick the solo traveler. Not really fair, but if one person out of a family of five has to leave, then you have realistically displaced the whole family. Really complicates rebooking. And would you have to pay a voucher for all five? Give each one of them food and lodging allowances? What about luggage?

    As for people flying for business, most business travelers have either status and/or paying higher business fares. Which would put them near the bottom of the list. Not always true, of course, but these travelers (of which I am one) are not buying business fares three or six months out.

  • Travelnut

    I thought they did also bump the wife. But I’ve read so many accounts of what happened, I may be confusing them.

  • Travelnut

    Yep, sadly it’s one more entry to the list of the many ways single people get the shaft (yes, others can fly solo but singles are more likely). At least I can console myself with my $9,950 and maybe an unexpected extra night in a really cool location.

  • James

    $$9950 is only for a voluntary bump. I would suspect that for an involuntary bump, you will get that statutory amount — no more than $1350.

  • James

    Our employees are required to purchase the cheapest fare, but we are not big enough for corporate rates (which I suspect may be used to identify the business traveler.) Our business travelers will look like solo travelers, and under a scheme where you don’t bump parts of parties, are more likely to get bumped.

    The only fair approach is to treat all individuals the same. If you are part of a party and don;t want to be separated then the rest of the party can be voluntarily bumped.

  • David___1

    promising it wouldn’t “involuntarily remove” a revenue passenger who has already boarded to make room for another passenger???

    Glad I don’t waste time collecting useless frequent flier miles!

  • Jeff W.

    We are also required to purchase the cheapest fares. But a typical business person buys his/her fare a few days to a month before departure. The ultra-cheap fares are available to those who are booking many months in advance.

    If such a fare was available to you a few weeks before departure, it is unlikely the flight will be oversold.

    Corporate rates are a different type of fare and I was not really considering those. Just that people traveling on business are usually not buying the cheapest fare. They may have been the cheapest at the time of booking, but if there are passengers already booked on that flight, odds are good that the fares they paid were cheaper.

  • Jeff W.

    Not much was said about the wife. I assumed she wasn’t going to be bumped as they needed four seats. Three passengers already took United up on the offer. If the doctor was the fourth, the wife would have been the fifth and one of the previously bumped people could have had their seat back.

  • Lindabator

    but this WAS for a valid reason – so you think the passenger should make that decision? Of course not – as they will NEVER think it a valid reason

  • Jeff W.

    With change fees being as high as there are, if the fare is low enough, it can be cheaper to just rebook a new flight rather than absorb the change fee.

    On several occasions, due to various work-related issues, I have just rebooked a new return flight rather than pay the $200 change fee. Especially if the new fare is less than the change fee.

  • Lindabator

    that system is already in place – FAA gets full lists daily of involuntary bumps, voluntary bumps, and “incidents” like these

  • Lindabator

    actually, there are ALWAYS no shows on flights – they get sick, are sitting drunk in the airport, have to stay longer due to a meeting, etc.

  • Lindabator

    It WAS due to abuse – knew of a passenger who had a bereavement fare 4 times for the death of his grandmother Anne when I worked at UAL – so yes, that is why they drop them

  • KanExplore

    There are actually very few involuntary denied boardings, and even fewer cases like this one where a passenger is already seated then forced to leave. It won’t cost the airlines that much to raise their compensation levels to an amount that will attract volunteers and put an end to disgraceful spectacles like the Dao incident. United deserved every bit of the negative publicity it got. They decided to be cheap and play the bully card, which definitely backfired on them. Yes, Dr. Dao unwittingly became a hero for saying no.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    It was an easily avoidable situation. There were passengers offering to deplane for $1000. Take that offer and leave someone who wants/needs to stay on the plane right there.

    The situation was needlessly escalated. Step 1 in a conflict situation, regardless of who is “right” or “wrong” is to try and de-escalate. Let everyone turn off the “flight or fight” response and use their advanced mental functions. Deal with overbooking prior to allowing ANYONE to board. Keep in mind, that EVERYONE has their price, offer enough incentive, and you will get enough to voluntarily reschedule or cancel their flight. This is a situation where the market will take care of the situation – handle it like an auction. For $1000 cash, there’s a good chance, I’ll hang around the airport a few extra hours.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    Don’t forget missed connections

  • Rebecca

    There was a quiet news article I saw about a week ago that seems to have flown under the radar. A Delta passenger was asked to leave his seat and get off the flight. He refused, calmly refused over and over. So, instead of calling security to remove the man, the entire plane was asked to get off and wait at the gate. Then, they were subsequently (almost immediately) reboarded, with the man that had refused to get out of his seat denied boarding.

    So apparently the new policy if someone won’t leave their seat is to make every single passenger get off and refuse to board that individual. As an FYI.

  • Alan Gore

    Yet again, you’re making things up. From Fortune:

    “A small number of passenger expulsions are reported to the Federal Aviation Administration every year as unruly passenger incidents. In the first quarter of this year, only nine of them were reported to the federal government. But the category is not specific to terrorist threats or even passenger removals. Rather, it is a catch-all category for in-flight incidents, including air rage. ‘It’s up to the crew to decide if they want to report it,’ says Alison Duquette, a spokeswoman for the FAA. “They use their judgment based on our rules.”

    Is that weak tea, or what? Obviously the incentive with such a voluntary system would be on reporting passenger-initiated air rage. I want every ejection to be reported, with all crew members involved signing statements explaining why they took the action they did. Passengers can be charged if they start an incident, which would obviously be what leads to the voluntary reports we have now.

    Last month, a concert cellist who is used to buying a seat for his instrument under standard procedures whenever he flies to a job was ejected because some unnamed crewmember ‘felt uncomfortable’ about his cello. But a mandatory reporting procedure, with the fearful crewmember possibly liable for federal charges if found to be acting without cause, would strongly dissuade such shenanigans.

    You love procedures, airlines? We’ll give you some procedures of our own.

  • Alan Gore

    The ‘statutory amount’ only limits what a carrier HAS to pay out. It can choose to pay pout as much as it wants to.

  • MarkKelling

    All he did was use the toilet while the plane was not moving and was able to return to his seat before the plane moved. So he has been slapped with a “failure to follow crew instructions” federal charge.

    It was frustrating to watch the video because as he asked over and over “Am I being removed from this flight?” The airline agent kept saying “No, we just want to talk to you out on the jetway.” Of course they were removing him from the flight! I don’t know what went on before the video started or what type of a passenger he was prior to this, but it has happened on fights I have been on before and no one was ever removed because of using the toilet.

    I think the passenger remained calmer than I would have in this situation.

  • michael anthony

    Yes, it did evolve into that because security amped the situation and laughed at him. There is a tape from the beginning where he is calm and personable. Most networks havent played it, it isn’t sensational.

    It’s telling that those onboard who witnessed it, say he was the one taken advantage of. But the public, who only saw the worst of the interaction, blames the pax.

  • michael anthony

    Then that’s the carriers fault. You had to provide hospital contact, if seriously ill, or,funeral contact, if deceased. I spent many years on a very high death ward. About 50% of the time, carriers contacted our contact for this, so families could get there. There were 2 carriers that never called. If the carriers didn’t validate the information they required, that’s on them.

  • michael anthony

    The new crew wasn’t scheduled to fly until the next day.

  • Koholaz

    I don’t believe that you should be required to leave an aircraft in which you are already seated. Period. No exceptions. If you were in a restaurant and had paid for your meal would you condone being told to give up your table for someone else and be handed a doggie bag? I fly rarely these days but when I do I need to be at my destination for a good reason. “Taking it up with the courts later” or even the monetary compensation is useless to me. Since every flight is booked solid it’s unlikely you’ll get a seat in a reasonable amount of time. And if you’ve spent extra for an upgraded seat the chances of getting that on a rebooking are also slim. I, for one, would not quietly comply with the Gestapo tactics of being singled out and told to march off.

  • Bob Davis

    How often does a no-show result in a refund? If there is no refund then the airline lost no money except the opportunity to sell the seat twice.

  • cscasi

    I agree. I really would like to see the airlines have to give the passenger or passengers bumped because of oversells or whatever other situation arises (like change of type of aircraft – usually smaller) have to give the affected passenger/passengers the choice of a credit (usually good for a year to use toward future flight) or a check for the amount. I think most passengers would rather get the cash option and it would help wake airlines up to not get into so many oversells or other issues as they would be paying out and not just issuing vouchers which lots of folks seem not to use.

  • Hanope

    Except that apparently it wasn’t a valid reason, as has been borne out. Once a passenger has boarded, the airline isn’t supposed to remove them unless they are “a danger” which Mr. Dao wasn’t.

  • Don Spilky

    Due to a mechanical issue in the inbound flight, the crew arrived way late for their outbound flight and everyone was already boarded.

  • cscasi

    But, some of the no shows are flying on refundable or changeable tickets that their companies have purchased for them, knowing that there are times when these people will have to stay longer than planned, etc. Many actually call in and get the changes made, so are they counted as no shows because the seats are now unfilled?

  • cscasi

    However, we still do not know the exact time the gate agent was advised that four seats needed to be made available for this crew, do we? Was the information passed before boarding, after people were already boarding or at the end of boarding? That does make a difference. If the word was passed late, it absolutely made it harder om the gate agent and especially the passengers who were affected.

  • cscasi

    That’s right, however they have to have the mandated hours of “crew rest” before flying the next day.

  • cscasi

    I have been using frequent flyer miles for the past 35 years and have yet to get bumped and I have flown nationally and internationally.

  • cscasi

    Yes, that may have been disheartening, however there are rules about remaining seated after the plane has left the gate. All the more reason for passengers to use the restroom before they board. I have seen passengers boarding flights I have been on that enter the lavatory before even going to their assigned seats or go to their seats and then clog the aisle trying to get to and back from the lavatory while boarding is in progress.
    Sometimes, it is an emergency or perhaps a late connecting passenger. However, many times it is just because someone decided wait until they got on the plane.

  • cscasi

    Interesting. Of course, that is your choice; well, at least at the beginning, but if you decided not to comply, it might not bode well for you as things progressed.

  • Rebecca

    I read about what happened, but because I wasn’t there and it seems like a story open to interpretation, I just left it out.

    My point was simply that this is apparently the new policy. If, for whatever reason, someone doesn’t quietly leave when asked, you just make the entire plane get up from their seats, collect their belongings, and eventually reboard minus that individual. It reminds me of the 800 forms you have to sign at the hospital. If there’s an iota of a possibility of a lawsuit with bad press, do anything and everything (no matter how inconvenient) to avoid that. It takes a very long time for everyone to get off and back on. That’s a cascading delay.

  • Attention All Passengers

    Wow, I just watched the four hours of the Congressional Hearing today – meeting with representatives from Southwest, AA, Alaska Air and Oscar Munoz and Scott Kirby from United. They were all pretty much put through the ringer with Q/A’s. A lot of admissions of guilt in some areas and apologies and promises ‘to do better ‘ as usual. I’m with Congress, no one could give a really valid answer why overbooking is done at all. Kirby’s answer was weak.
    My take is that so much could be corrected if they would all go back to WN’s model – no bag fees, no change fees, no cancellation fees. I would add a few other things like – don’t charge for making a reservation over the phone ($25) ??, first checked bag free, restore meals on flights…….How about this UA, AA, DL,.??……just try it for a year or two – your planes will be so full you will be turning people away and still make money – why is this so hard to do (think out of the box or actually go back to the “old-fashioned” way of customer service for airline passengers). ???????
    P.S. — …and what’s with DL that they didn’t accept the invitation – do they really feel that exempt from faults and problems ?? – think — computer and weather debacles this year.

  • MarkKelling

    I agree that none of us were physically there for any of these recently reported issues so we only have what was made available to base our opinions on.

    The video, as I mentioned, does not cover the entire situation so we don’t know how the passenger was acting before being asked to leave. The passenger on Delta did violate the stay-seated-while-the-seatbelt-light-was-on rule. That much is obvious. But was it really enough to get tossed off the plane? Apparently now it is. But what choice did the airline have to remove him? He obviously was not going to get off the plane when asked. I’m sure the airline did not want a United situation to happen here as well. So ask everyone to leave. Better than bashing his head against the armrest and dragging him out unconscious.

  • Rebecca

    I really think you can look at it both ways. The only time I have ever (in over 30 years of flying) had a problem with a flight attendant was when I was pregnant and really needed to pee. She threatened me with arrest, and I swear I wasn’t nasty or loud. Fortunately, another flight attendant heard our conversation, came over and apologized, and ushered me to the opposite end of the plane to the other bathroom. In a situation like this, I can see the argument that since he’s refusing to get off the plane, who knows what kind of crazy is to come at cruising altitude. I just don’t like having an opinion when I wasn’t there. The truth is almost certainly somewhere in the middle and I’m sure both parties were at least partially wrong.

    But I would not be happy if I was travelling with my two toddlers and had to get all their crap, take their harnesses off the seats (let alone if I still traveled with car seats), get all of that off with no stroller to keep them in a fixed spot among a crowd with my bags, then reboard and set their harnesses back up, and get them situated again. Plus now we’re late. That’s an obnoxious policy, although I certainly do understand the airline having that policy.

  • Lloyd Johnston

    As I said before, let the market determine the cost. Make an appropriate offer and people WILL leave the plane. Depending on the reasons for my flight, I’ll deplane on my own for anywhere from $1000 to $5000. If it’s a $5000 flight, well, I’m sure there are others who will deplane for less. (Get me BEFORE boarding, I might go as low at $750 if I’m returning home and don’t have any strong plans right away)

  • Lloyd Johnston

    And therefore the necessary price for you would be MUCH higher than for others. If the airline offered you $100,000 cash, I’m sure you would deplane without any complaints, but there WOULD be people who would/could deplane or be bumped for much much less. Why is why they should do an auction at the gate. Those who are more flexible will bump for less, those who HAVE to be on the plane no matter what will stay on the plane.

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