United Air Overhauls Passenger Bumping Rules after Dragging Incident

Better Boarding

Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

United Airlines released a report today promising to turn over a new leaf on the way it handles bumping passengers sparked by the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao off Flight 3411 on April 9, an incident that went viral around the world.

“Every customer deserves to be treated with the highest levels of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect,” said United CEO Oscar Munoz in a statement. “Two weeks ago, we failed to meet that standard and we profoundly apologize. However, actions speak louder than words. Today, we are taking concrete, meaningful action to make things right and ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

As a result, United says it will implement 10 “substantial” changes on how it flies, serves and respects its customers. They are:

  • Limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.
  • Not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.
  • Increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.
  • Establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions such as using nearby airports, other airlines or ground transportations to get customers to their final destination.
  • Ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure.
  • Provide employees with additional annual training.
  • Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans.
  • Reduce the amount of overbooking.
  • Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.
  • Eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a “no questions asked” policy on lost luggage.

Some of the policies will become effective immediately, others will be rolled out through the rest of 2017.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and advisor at San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, does research and speaks regularly about the airline passenger experience. “When I read the report, I noted the contrite and sincere tone that it took. This is a company with its head hung low, fully aware of the problem caused by this and the negative global reaction that resulted, so I commend United for doing this.”

But it’s inevitable that over time, United will discover that there are additional factors that will have to investigated for possible change, said Harteveldt. “One of the questions I have for United is over the use of law enforcement officers. In its report, it said they would not call for law enforcement except over safety and security issues, but how do you define that?” he asked. “At what point does the airline decide that a line has been crossed and how do you define that? I understand United’s intention, but I’m concerned that there may need to be more specifics provided around that.”

Harteveldt views the report as the airline’s first step on how it handles overbooked flights and involuntary denied boardings. “I don’t see this as an end game. In fact, I view it as an organic document and United needs to do so as well,” he said.

Three of the 10 recommendations stood out for Harteveldt. “First, United has pledged to reduce the level where they overbook their flights,” he said. “This is a major win for its customers and it means there will be fewer flights where agents have to seek volunteers to handle overbooking.”

Second, Harteveldt applauded United for changing its policies on putting crewmembers on flights. “By requiring crews to be booked on a flight 60 minutes before departure, it means that employees who have a legitimate reason to get to a destination will be booked before boarding begins,” he said. “It also gives employees and passengers some sense of protection and allows gate agents to better manage a flight when there are more people than seats.”

Third, it’s good that United will invest in the technology necessary for passengers and gate agents to manage their experiences, said Harteveldt. “In the case of passengers, they will receive alerts at all check-in points, the web, via mobile and on kiosks when flights are oversold and volunteers are needed,” he said. “And gate agents will be able to better manage these experiences.”

The review shows that many things went wrong that day, said Munoz. “But the headline is clear: our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what’s right. This is a turning point for all of us at United and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline,” he said. “Our customers should be at the center of everything we do and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust,” he added.

But Harteveldt expects passengers to be cynical and suspicious of United’s announcement. “I genuinely believe that United approached this as a sincere effort to be better. But only persistent actions will show the traveling public that United is serious about walking the walk,” he said. “It’s going to be up to United to live up to the promises made in this report and exceed them whenever possible.”

Unfortunately for United, no matter what it does, it will have to be twice as good as its competitors to be considered half as good, said Harteveldt.   “There is a black eye around the United Airlines globe logo caused by what happened on Flight 3411 and will take years for that black eye to fade away,” he stated. “Fair or not, United will be under the microscope.”