Some Lessons From The United Airlines Incident

Written by Mike Shapiro | | April 12, 2017

In the aftermath of this week’s incident where a passenger was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, most everyone’s following the normal routine:

  1. Look at the video,
  2. Affix blame on one party — the airline CEO. (I mean, that’s where the buck stops, right?)
  3. Demand an apology,
  4. Label the apology as late and inadequate.
  5. Critique the public relations effectiveness of the airline’s response.

This familiar pattern is caused by the confluence of several phenomena:

  1. The availability of video “evidence” of just about every incident.
  2. The belief that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and that once you’ve seen the video, no explanation is necessary or appropriate.
  3. The belief that there is always just ONE culprit, and a desire to publicly call out that one offending person or entity.

But maybe there’s an alternative to this knee-jerk reaction — one that might offer an opportunity for everyone involved to examine and evaluate their actions with an eye to what could have been done better.

For the United gate agent:

  1. Better incentive offers. Could an additional offer have been made to induce passengers to give up their seats? I’ve been in the boarding area many times, and watched everyone stay seated while the offers are announced — until the point where they up the ante to something that’s really appealing. As many times as I’ve flown, most of the flights have been overbooked, and every single time they’ve been able to find people — by continuing to make higher offers. Was there more that could have been done here?
  2. Dealing with the addition of non-revenue passengers. Of what importance was the fact that the flight was not really over-SOLD? The need to make seats available was due to United’s late decision to board several crew members who had to get to Louisville. Did this addition of non-revenue passengers, and its presumed negative effect on the profitability of that flight, reduce the dollars the gate agent had available for incentives to passengers to give up their seats? Was there any other way to handle this late contingency in some less disruptive way?
  3. Consideration of other factors in bump decision. In making the decision about which passengers to bump, after considering the usual criteria of amount paid for the ticket, frequent flyer status and check-in time, could another look have revealed that some passengers had a special urgency to get to Louisville by a time-certain?

For the security agents:

  1. Reason first. Did they try to reason with the passenger — or bring someone who could — before using force on an unarmed person who apparently was not a threat to other passengers?
  2. Offer to discuss. When he initially refused to exit the plane, did they give the passenger an opportunity to make his case with the gate agent?
  3. Check back before using force. When all else failed, did they call back to some higher authority to request instructions before using force to evict the passenger?

For the airline:

  1. Process. Was there a procedure in place to deal with such situations, communicated to gate staff and security personnel?
  2. Pressure. To what extent did the intense, always-present pressure for an “on-time departure” compromise the ability of the gate staff and security to take the above steps to deal with the emergent situation — deliberately and thoughtfully.

For the passenger:

  1. Stop and think. It is a fact of air travel that passengers sometimes get bumped from planes. If you travel often enough, one day it’s going to be you. Did he stop to consider that he was one of dozens of people on board the plane, all of whom wanted to get to Louisville as soon as possible, just like he did, and that his refusal was inconveniencing everyone else on the plane?
  2. Make his case. Did he take every opportunity to calmly make his case to the gate agent?
  3. Anticipate probable consequences of his actions. When confronted by security, did he consider that his refusal to exit the plane might prompt them to try to evict him by force, and think twice before refusing?

With every incident — every experience — there is always more to the story than first meets the eye. We do a disservice to everyone involved when we conduct a trial-by-video. We also miss the opportunity to learn from the experience.