APRIL 11, 2017 — United Airlines sure had a twisted way of showing customer appreciation during a Sunday flight out of Chicago’sO’Hare International Airport. A video that has now gone viral shows security officers forcibly yanking a man out of his seat on a United Express flight and dragging him down the aisle by his wrists. Horrified passengers watched — and recorded.
The incident occurred because United had overbooked the flight from Chicago to Louisville. The airline sought volunteers to give up their seats. Witnesses said airline representatives said they needed four seats for United employees who had to be in Louisville the next day. The airline offered incentives, but when not enough people volunteered to stay behind, the airline randomly selected four passengers to get off the plane.
One of the four, whom witnesses said claimed he was a doctor who needed to see patients the next day, refused to leave after being warned security would be called. Three officers can be seen yanking the man from his seat while he screams. His head bangs on an armrest. They then grab his wrists and drag him down the aisle on his back. Several videos recorded by passengers show his glasses askew and his abdomen exposed.
“Good work. Way to go,” a passenger can be heard yelling sarcastically at the officers. “My God, what are you doing! Oh my God, look at what you did to him!” another passenger says.
In Monday’s ensuing uproar, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement: “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. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
We aren’t naive; we understand that airlines, hotels and restaurants routinely overbook because some customers cancel or simply don’t show up. You can make the case that, in the aggregate, overbooking allows more people to fly, sleep and eat because fewer accommodations, including airplane seats, go unused.
But if United plays that game, it has to own the risk — specifically the risk of having to raise, and raise, the compensation offer until someone accepts it.
Unfortunately for United, passengers are watching one of its paying customers be assaulted on the same day Forbes published an account of how to handle just such a situation: “Why Delta Air Lines Paid Me $11,000 Not To Fly To Florida This Weekend.” The writer, Laura Begley Bloom, recounts a saga in which she, her husband and daughter negotiated with Delta agents and wound up agreeing to cancel their plans. “But we can’t complain,” she writes. “Do the math — my family and I made about $11,000 from Delta this weekend. And it didn’t cost us anything besides our time (and a missed trip).”
Mr. Munoz, have everyone at United read the Forbes article. If your airline wouldn’t or couldn’t make its employees wait for another flight, or fly a different route, or rent a car and drive to Louisville, then United should have accepted what Delta evidently accepts: This may cost us a lot, but it’s cheaper than the headaches if the world sees us manhandling our paying passengers.
This incident follows a March 26 social media uproar for United after a gate agent barred two teenagers from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings. The leggings were a violation of United’s buddy pass dress code: The teens were flying under a friends-and-family program of United employees, which requires them to meet clothing standards when flying. A younger girl estimated by one witness to be about 10 years old pulled a dress over her leggings before she was allowed to board.
United firmly stood by its dress code during that “situation,” even though the dress code requirements seem to target females more than males — no leggings, tight clothes or short skirts, but men using a buddy pass and wearing athletic pants would supposedly be allowed.
And now this far, far worse explosion on social media — video of a passenger being dragged off a plane.
Certainly not a good reflection of United, and not a good reflection of security personnel at O’Hare. There were so many options on how to handle a passenger determined to get home on an overbooked flight. United picked the worst.