Airline overbooking: a very bumpy flight

United Airlines should take a hard look at its “customer care”

 

The practice of airlines systematically overbooking flights in the hope of filling as many seats as possible may be legal, but most certainly does not endear them to passengers. And few regular travellers will not have been outraged at the sight of security officials dragging a screaming man by the arms down the aisle of a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after he refused to be “bumped” from a flight to Louisville.

United executives poured flames on the controversy, by then viral on the internet, by refusing to apologise to the passenger whom chief executive Oscar Munoz described entirely falsely as “disruptive and belligerent”. A spokesman said that “we asked several times, politely” for him to give up his seat before force was used.

True. They even offered him up to $1,000 to give up the seat he was comfortably ensconced in to an airline employee, no less. But the passenger, an American-Chinese doctor, selected “at random” by airline staff to be bumped , said no. And that should have been the end of the matter.

The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that the incident “was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure” and that an officer summoned by the airline to evict the passenger had been placed on leave pending a review. United should follow suit. And the international aviation authorities should prohibit involuntary “bumping” – either airlines should end overbooking, a fraud on consumers who naively believe they have been sold a seat on a particular flight, or they should be forced to offer sufficient compensation to induce volunteers.

United, which also recently refused to allow a 10-year-old girl to board a flight for wearing leggings in “violation of its dress code”, should take a hard look at its customer care strategy. Sunday’s incident has cost it significant damage in its home market, knocked points off its shares and in China, where it hopes to make inroads, has been widely branded as racist. On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, the video garnered 270 million views and more than 150,000 comments. Who’s bumping who now?

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