Lessons from the United Airlines debacle

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

The video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this week has been widely circulated on social media, and the case has been making headline news both in the US and the UK. Apart from being a public-relations disaster for United, what more might we learn?

One reaction might be that ‘it’s not exactly Syria’. It’s true that there are many other world events that seem more pressing. But millions of people have flown using airlines like United, and so it is understandable that we would empathise with someone who has bought a ticket being unceremoniously dragged off a flight. If anything, it’s probably an indictment of modern news values – giving undue attention to whatever is blowing up on social media.

Another reaction might be: ‘How can you get a ticket but not be allowed to fly?’ Well, that’s thanks to the (mostly) sensible idea of overbooking flights so that there are as few empty seats as possible. If the flight is occasionally full, the airline can offer generous inducements to passengers who aren’t too time-sensitive in their travel plans to volunteer to get the next flight. If all else fails, some people get bumped. Mostly, this is merely annoying. Occasionally, it is a minor disaster for those unlucky enough to get picked. Airlines might consider a ‘no bump’ fee for those who really need to catch that particular flight and organise their bookings accordingly.

The European alternative to this is non-refundable seats for specific flights. But this can be just as bad. No danger of being bumped (in theory), but zero sympathy if you miss your flight or turn up at the airport without a pre-printed boarding pass. (It can be 60 quid for a reprint.) And if the flight gets cancelled, the airline has limited obligations to get you on the next one, or even from the same airport. Once, my Ryanair flight from Treviso in Italy was grounded by fog and I ended up getting a flight from an airport 120 miles away, 24 hours later, for zero compensation. (Compensation rules have admittedly improved since then.) Many other passengers will have their own tales of woe about the inflexibility of travel on Europe’s budget airlines. We shouldn’t sneer too much at the hard-nosed attitudes of American airlines.

What went wrong in this case was that the airline staff didn’t realise that the plane would be full until everyone was on board. Having failed to get enough volunteers, the passenger in question, Dr David Dao, was selected to be asked to get off. He refused – he had patients to see the next day, he said – and was roughly removed from his seat by airport police, getting injured in the process. If the incident demonstrates anything, it is the hamfisted approach of US law enforcement to any disagreement or resistance – as previously revealed, much more graphically, in a variety of lethal shootings by police officers.

United is rightly apologetic, if rather mealy-mouthed about it. The incident is hugely embarrassing for the company, even though it wasn’t United staff that hurt Dr Dao. It would have been far better to have sorted this out in the departure lounge than on the plane, and to bribe passengers as much as necessary to get the requisite number of volunteers, rather than taking an enormous hit to the firm’s reputation. But let’s not get too carried away with one enormous cock-up.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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Topics Politics


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