United Airlines incident a breaking point, or just another viral video? My Q&A with a leading passenger advocate

Buy William McGee’s book, Attention all Passengers

The America Online “cancel the account” phone call. The Comcast cable guy sleeping on the couch.  The United Breaks Guitars song and viral video. These were all big, public moments that allegedly did millions of dollars in damage to the companies involved. Or, did they?  Sure, we all got a laugh, but one can argue these “Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned” moments faded without causing any dramatic systemic changes.  We all watched with satisfaction, mainly because we all felt vindicated that a firm which had mistreated us or someone we love had been caught in the act. These incidents went viral because they rang true.

And that brings us to Dr. David Dao.  His violent removal from  a United flight may have, in one sense, been an isolated incident.  We don’t (yet) know of other violent passenger removals in such circumstances.  The legal issues surrounding his removal aren’t *exactly* an everyday occurrence, and likely didn’t really even involve overbooking rules, per se. But in a very real sense, it was hardly isolated.  As I’ve explained elsewhere, airline passengers — and indeed, consumers in many situations — are routinely mistreated with the blessing of American legal structures.  Finally, we have video of this.

But will United Airlines hideous handling of Dao be a watershed incident for airline travel? Or will in just land an honorary spot in the Andy Warhol viral video Hall of Fame, a footnote in the long march towards even smaller airline seats?

If I have any serious questions about airline policies, I seek out William McGee.  I usually find he’s written dozens of articles, some many years old, dealing with the issue I want to talk about.  So it should come as no surprise that McGee was very busy last week.  I made him sit down long enough today to help me with the next phase of the United Airlines fiasco from last week.

McGee is the author of Attention All Passengers (Click to buy). He is a veteran aviation journalist, a former airline flight operations manager, and a devoted passenger rights advocate.

Me: How does the Dr. Dao/United incident point to deeper issues in the carrier-passenger relationship?

William McGee: For over a decade now, we’ve seen several distinct and parallel domestic airline trend lines that are all moving in the wrong direction for passengers–or at least for the passengers back in steerage. Chief among these are:

  • • Dramatic consolidation. We’ve never had so few major carriers in the history of the U.S. airline industry. For the first time, we’re down to just the Big Three major network carriers (American, Delta, United), along with Southwest. As recently as 2001, we still had TWA, America West, Northwest, Continental, and US Airways. In the 1980s we still had several others, including Pan Am and Eastern. These mergers and acquisitions have had many negative effects, but one of the least discussed outcomes of declining competition is how it leads directly to customer mistreatment. In other words, airlines often engage in bad behavior because in many cases they CAN get away with it.
    • Fuller and fuller cabins. Passenger load factors are higher than they’ve been since the airlines were troop carriers in World War II. Loads consistently averaged in the high 50s-low 60s for about 50-60 years, but now they regularly average in the high 80s-low 90s, with a higher percentage at 100%. As a former airline operations manager and FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher, I can tell you that airlines are not designed to run efficiently at full capacity all the time. Record loads lead to boarding delays; lack of overhead bin space; tighter seating (Boeing has proven that empty adjacent seats mean more room); higher average fares; and of course more involuntary bumping.
    • Outsourcing flights to regional carriers. Dr. Dao’s flight was operated not by United Airlines, but by United’s regional codesharing partner, Republic. Most passengers don’t realize that in recent years more than half of all domestic flight departures are operated by the majors’ regional partners. That said, this in NO WAY excuses United for last week’s events; the airline that sold the ticket ultimately is responsible. But it does speak to the miscommunication and crossed wires that apparently contributed to this whole mess.
    • Outsourcing employee functions. In recent days, we’ve heard multiple media reports on WHO made the decision to remove Dr. Dao? Was it decided at headquarters? Or by airport-based ground staff? Cockpit crew? Flight attendants? Were they United employees? Republic employees? The chances are high those who made this decision were not employees of EITHER United or Republic, because the airline industry now outsources as much work as possible–often to undertrained, poorly compensated, transient part-timers. This applies even to “employees” who wear an airline’s uniform in some cases.
    • Weaker and weaker “contracts of carriage.” I’ve studied these domestic airline contracts for 17 years now, and in recent years they have become all but meaningless in many cases. They are lengthy documents embedded with legalese and “mushy” language. Even attorneys often can’t figure out their rights in these contracts. And they’re intentionally ambiguous on what the airlines will do when a flight is delayed or cancelled or a passenger is bumped. Under other circumstances, would you pay money to enter a contract that states the other party “MAY” or “MIGHT” fulfill its part of the bargain?
    • Tighter seats. It’s a statistical fact that seats have gotten tighter in terms of both legroom and width, and more seats have been crammed into cabins. And as noted above, the higher loads only exacerbate this. I and others have documented this trend with apples-to-apples comparisons–it’s not a myth.
    • Fees. What is there to say? Airline executives insist passengers WANT to be nickel-and-dimed with fees for services that once were free, such as checked baggage, seat assignments, ticket changes, and even carry-on baggage in some cases. I have yet to meet such passengers.
  • All these trends and several others played out with one passenger on one airplane on one airline last week in Chicago. But it was inevitable. As I said the other day, we’ve got the perfect boiling frogs scenario here. These factors didn’t all occur overnight–but they have occurred, and passengers are angry.

Me: Will this incident be the catalyst for real change, or just fade into the lexicon of wronged consumers (like the United Breaks Guitars guy Dave Carroll, etc etc)? 

I truly believe this event will be a catalyst for real change. We can never predict when that one watershed event will occur to spur true transformation. But on larger issues we’ve seen it time and again, from the Boston Tea Party to Rosa Parks. If this truly was an isolated incident, we wouldn’t still be talking about it more than a week later. But it’s the widespread consumer anger that has kept this story in the headlines. And that consumer anger has been boiling for some time now and the frogs don’t like it.

(My note: That United Breaks Guitars song now has 17 million views. Wow.)

3. If real change is coming, what has to change first? It’s already illegal to assault a passenger, for example. Increasing payouts for bumps is probably a good idea, but would that change anything, really? What kind of rules do passenger advocates want to see immediately?

I and many others have been saying that the time has come for a meaningful Passenger Bill of Rights in the United States. This is not unprecedented; for years, the European Union has offered its own simple, clear, uniform, consistent regulations, as codified online for all to see (www.airpassengerrights.eu/en/). The E.U. provides an existing template that we can amend and improve upon here in the U.S. We need to address how ALL passengers–not just “elite” passengers as defined by the airlines–should be treated when flights are delayed or cancelled, or when boarding is denied.

William McGee

The practice of VOLUNTARY bumping has worked well for decades, so long as the airlines were willing to properly compensate passengers who willingly decided to fly later. But Dr. Dao’s incident clearly demonstrates that U.S. airlines require regulation or legislation to treat all passengers equally. Overbooking has become more chronic due to the use of smaller regional aircraft and the record high load factors. A key component of a Pax Bill of Rights will be to completely overhaul airline bumping policies, since the airlines have shown they can’t be trusted to do it themselves. One last note: In the last 24 hours we’ve heard that United is making some changes to its Contract of Carriage. Let’s not forget that such changes may well be temporary, designed to address a tanking public relations image. Only a Passenger Bill of Rights can bring real change.

4. You’ll hear consumer advocates (me) say the real problem is a lack of competition. It’s simply not practical for many folks to boycott United, for example. What can be done about that?

This is one of the most challenging aspects of this issue, and you are absolutely correct. I’ve found that most regulators, industry analysts, and travel/aviation journalists live in a handful of cities–New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles–that still have a modicum of competition. And that competition is due to the presence of low fare carriers and NOT due to the Big Three competing against each other. So the usual pundits talk about “booking away” and “withholding their business” and “voting with their feet.” Well, that is simply not possible in most of the major markets and virtually all of the smaller markets in the United States in 2017. Except on the high-volume routes where low cost carriers are present, in many cases there is NO competition at all. Try telling someone in Atlanta to shift to another major carrier. Try telling someone in Montana or Idaho to book away at all. The fact is, I and many others predicted this is exactly what would happen when the mega-mergers (DL-Northwest, UA-Continental, AA-US Airways) were being debated a few years ago. I testified in both houses of Congress against these mergers, but of course the government approved them and many others as well. We’ve seen consolidation lead to a lack of competition, higher fares where there are no low cost carriers, the closure of hubs, fewer nonstop flights and flight frequencies, and ultimately a worsening of customer service.

5. Why was United stingy the other day with flight 3411? Is there something going on behind the scenes that limited flight attendants’ ability to compensate passengers/entice them to volunteer?

United was indeed stingy. But as I stated above, it’s still unclear WHO made the decision to remove Dr. Dao. (Perhaps we’ll find out if his case goes to trial.) What is abundantly clear is that this was a textbook case of being penny wise and pound foolish. The accepted industry practice is to offer CASH compensation (as codified by the U.S. Department of Transportation) for voluntarily giving up a seat; if that doesn’t work, then a “reverse auction” is held for all passengers. In other words, offer $1,000 and then $1,500 and then $2,000 and you’ll quickly get four volunteers. Simply put, United failed to do this, even though technically it was not an oversold flight and technically it was not a denied boarding because Dr. Dao had already boarded. But United wanted one more empty seat and, while there were other ways of getting it, the airline obviously decided it would be cheaper to call security on Dr. Dao.

It’s worth noting that on the very day this occurred, Delta Air Lines was handing out a ton of money to its own passengers due to massive overbooking. (Credit where it’s due to Delta, although blame is deserved as well because Delta was unable to recover from a one-day storm that decimated its schedule for nearly a week.)

(See my story on Delta’s recent customer service success stories here.)

But an even greater question is WHY Dr. Dao was selected in the first place. I’ve long called this one of the dirty little secrets of the airline industry: All passengers are not created equal in the eyes of airline executives. There are complex algorithms built into those little passenger name records on the face of your boarding card, and any number of factors “rank” each passenger. These factors include not only the obvious–class of service and frequent flyer program status–but also the price paid; the booking channel (airline vs. travel agency vs. online travel agency vs. bidding site, etc.); the booking method (online vs. offline); the time of booking; etc., etc. All this helps determine, as Orwell warned us, that some animals are more equal than others. So such decisions are made behind the curtain, and we’re not entitled to know those secrets. After all, we’re only the paying passengers who kept our part of a blatantly one-sided contract.

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About Bob Sullivan 1098 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. I was delighted to see Mr. McGee mention the “reverse auction” approach. it seems so obvious that it would resolve almost all, if not all, of these incidents. I notice that “wonderful power of the free market” seems so swooned over by businesses quickly gets ignored when the other ox is liable to get gored.

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