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United Airlines’ Unique Overbooking Policies

Posted by bvalaw on April 10, 2017

It would appear that United Airlines is in the process of writing a book about the stupidest business practices ever. From what I can tell, the working title is “The Friendly Skies – Not!” Just looking back at the past few months, in December 2016, United announced that it would start charging for overhead space on its planes and low fare passengers would be limited to one carry on per person. Then, in February of this year, one of its pilots had to be removed from a flight after experiencing some sort of mental meltdown.

Now, it appears that United is continuing its quest for platinum status by forcibly removing a fare-paying passenger, who was apparently doing absolutely nothing wrong, from one of its flights because United overbooked the flight and needed to make room for four of its own employees. Oh – and the folks they used to forcibly remove this poor passenger were none other than the Chicago Aviation Police. Remember them? They are the ones who were instructed to run and hide in an active airport-shooting scenario. Heroics abound in this story, but apparently the Chicago air cops are up to the challenge of assaulting a middle-aged doctor on a flight to Kentucky.

And speaking of heroics, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, is apparently deeply upset by having to “re-accommodate” the passengers aboard the flight. He claims that the airline will personally speak to the affected passenger to try and “address and resolve this situation.” Good luck with that, Mr. Munoz. I’m sure the only person United will be hearing from is that passenger’s attorney – and rightfully so.

While overbooking is not illegal, the Federal Aviation Regulations require that a passenger who is involuntarily denied boarding due to overbooking be awarded immediate compensation. While both the regulations and United’s own rules address the denial of a boarding, neither addresses the involuntary removal of a passenger who has already boarded. And neither gives the airline the right to physically remove a non-disruptive passenger from his or her seat against his or her will. From what I have seen of the coverage, this passenger was not being disruptive at all prior to being told to leave the plane, so I am baffled as to how the Chicago air cops assumed any jurisdiction over this issue at all.

In any event, this is really stupid for business. There is just no other way to say it. It was an incredibly dumb over-response to a situation of United Airlines’ own making. The airport cops involved should be called onto the carpet for injuring this poor guy, but United’s board of directors should seriously be asking themselves what possible value the company is getting from CEO Oscar Munoz. At some point, when a ship takes enough hits, it will start to sink, and the blame for that always lands on the captain.