United - how is dragging a passenger off a flight an example of 'Friendly Skies'?

If you don’t yet know what this blog post is about, please first watch the video below. It’s very short, but does contain sounds you might not want your kids, work colleagues or random strangers to hear. Just to let you know. And then ask yourself what this could be about.

If you do know what this blog post is about, you may still want to watch the video again; because if you’re like me, you’re probably still wondering how this can be.

The videos were taken by passengers on United Airlines Flight 3411 between Chicago and Louisville on Sunday April 9. The plane was overbooked, and initial efforts to find the necessary number of volunteers to take a later flight were unsuccessful. Passengers however had been allowed to board the flight, so a computer picked four passengers at random to be disembarked. This man was one of them, and did not want to get off the plane. He was removed forcibly as you can see, and as of the time of writing, I have yet to see on any news outlets details of the man’s identity, or whether he was hurt in the incident.

United’s inital response* was limited to confirming the flight was overbooked, that one passenger refused to leave the plane voluntarily, and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.  Also this.

So let’s be clear about this. This man has done nothing wrong. He has paid for his ticket, he has been given a boarding pass, and he has been allowed to board his flight. He is not wearing leggings. He is apparently a doctor who has patients to see today. But because of a random number generator, he has been filmed being forcibly removed from an aircraft like a criminal.

I personally am still shaking with anger several hours after seeing the video for the first time. How is this customer service? How can any United employee have watched this take place and not felt ashamed? Or rather let down by their company. To make matters worse (if that is possible), the reason apparently given to remove fare-paying passengers was United needed the seats for crew who had to be Louisville the next day.

I am actually a loyal United customer. The airline has flown me back to Northern Ireland on many, many occasions, as the only carrier to offer a direct flight between the US and Belfast. That flight was discontinued recently, but we still chose United to fly home last month to the UK to see the folks. As seems to happen increasingly frequently these days, there were niggles, glitches with our reservation and airport experience that just made me question my loyalty a little. But such is air travel these days.

However those little niggles were enough to make me think this morning that that unfortunate passenger could have been me, that I no longer feel I am guaranteed anything with an United ticket, not least of all respect and common decency. And I imagine I’m not alone, that there will be many other people out there who may now think twice about booking with United, who may wonder how dragging a passenger off a flight is a good example of flying ‘the Friendly Skies‘.

Because I think we’re all united in the answer to that one.

Perhaps not so much...

Perhaps not so much…

  • Post publication, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz apologised for having to ‘re-accommodate’ the passengers, and said the company was to conduct a detailed review of what happened. One aviation security officer involved in the incident has also been placed on leave.

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