Wherever the Road Leads

Boarding Passes, Buffalo…

… United Airlines and Dr. Dao.

Today, everyone is a “Victim”.

I’ve not had much of an opinion on the United Airlines situation where a passenger was dragged off a flight, kicking and screaming. I wanted to learn more than just the social media side.

I have flown enough to know that most airline employees do not roll out of bed in the morning thinking to themselves, “Today is the day I am going to refuse carriage to a paying passenger and have him physically and violently removed from a flight, causing international infamy for my employer.” Not even in Chicago.

Also, I wondered how a rational man could allow himself to be dragged off in such a spectacular and forceful fashion.

What follows is the other side of the story… the whole story… and the facts. But first, a couple of tales which, I believe, are related as background.

My mother was a pretty savvy traveler in her heyday. One facet I used to roll my eyes at was that she wanted to ‘check-in’ and have her Boarding Passes printed out as soon as they were available to be printed…. 24 hours before departure. I never bought into this theory. What if you had a flat tire on the way to the airport and missed your flight, but you were already checked-in and your Boarding Pass was printed, making you a confirmed passenger?

Well, I learned the answer to that almost the hard way. My mother and I were taking a cruise together out of Newark, New Jersey. She was flying down from Toronto and I was flying up from Atlanta. I did not arrive at my Atlanta airport departure gate in the most timely manner. My Boarding Pass had not been pre-printed. When I checked in I was told that the flight was fully-booked and they could not give me a seat assignment right away. Would I be interested in volunteering to take a later flight?

It all worked out, I got a seat on the plane, but I learned my lesson about checking-in early and having your seat assignment and boarding pass in hand as early as possible.

Related tale number two is about a fellow seasonal (winter) camper here at Lake Harmony. From the Buffalo area, she is retired but her husband still has a year or two before he retires. Her husband, his brother and son were scheduled to fly down to Savannah during school break, earlier this year. That happened to be when there was extreme bad weather up and down the East Coast, stranding thousands and grounding hundreds of flights.

When the weather cleared, the airlines had even more passengers to move than before the storm, with equipment and crews grounded in cities other than where they were now needed.

The husband stood in line at the ticket counter at Buffalo Airport for an hour. When it was his turn, the ticket agent excused himself, after saying “$600 wasn’t enough, let me try $800.” He went over to another podium and upped the reward for giving up a seat to $800. He returned to the husband and said he had three seats available for a Sunday flight. This was Friday. Of Spring Break.

My fellow seasonal camper had been working the phone and the internet and came up with a rental car out of Buffalo Airport at, all things considered, a reasonable price. From Buffalo, the three drove down and back and had the money refunded for the airline tickets.

This is at about the same time as the Dr. Dao dragging incident. The airlines were under tremendous pressure to recover, to get crew and equipment to where they needed to be in order to please as many passengers as possible. Not all passengers were understanding. Perhaps Dr. Dao was one of them and is, most likely, a millionaire thanks to social media posting one side of the story. Here’s what happened:

 

Summary of What Happened on United Express Flight 3411

Sunday, April 9, 2017

United Express Flight 3411 is regularly scheduled to fly Sunday through Friday from O’Hare to Louisville, with a planned departure of 5:40 p.m. CDT and an arrival of 8:02 p.m. EDT. Seating capacity is 70 customers.

Before boarding, flight 3411 was overbooked by one customer. Despite early attempts by United, via website/kiosk and multiple announcements at the gate asking for customers willing to take later flights, there were no volunteers. As a result, one customer who had not yet been given a seat assignment was involuntarily denied boarding (see Involuntary Denied Boarding Selection Process sidebar). The customer received a check as compensation and was booked on another United flight. The other customers were then called to board the plane.

At the same time, an earlier flight to Louisville, originally scheduled to depart O’Hare at 2:55 p.m. CDT was experiencing a maintenance issue (it was unclear if this issue could be fixed, but regardless, it would depart after flight 3411). Booked on this flight were four crew members, scheduled to operate the early Monday morning United Express flight from Louisville to Newark. Without this crew’s timely arrival in Louisville, there was the prospect of disrupting more than 100 United customers by canceling at least one flight on Monday and likely more. With this in mind, the four crew members were booked on flight 3411, creating the need to identify four customers who would not be able to take the flight.

United agents began to seek four volunteers, this time while customers were seated on the aircraft. The agent offered an $800 travel credit plus the cost of meals and hotel accommodations for the evening, but no customers were willing to accept the offer. The agent then followed the involuntary denial of boarding selection process to determine which customers would be asked to leave the airplane.

Involuntary Denied Boarding (IDB) Selection Process

United’s involuntary denied boarding (IDB) process is automated and customers are not subject to discretionary choice by agents. This is our process:

  • First, agents will deny boarding if a passenger does not have a seat assignment prior to boarding the aircraft.
  • Customers are then sorted by fare class (estimated fare paid) and type of itinerary.
  • Customers with the lowest paid fare are placed at the top of the list for involuntary denial of boarding.
  • If a group of customers paid the same fare, then the group is sorted by time of check-in.
  • Customers with frequent flyer status will not be involuntarily denied boarding, unless all of the remaining passengers have frequent flyer status, in which case the lowest status will move to the top of the IDB list.
  • Customers with special needs (unaccompanied minors, passengers with disabilities) are excluded and are not involuntarily denied boarding.

Once the four customers on flight 3411 were identified, the United supervisor spoke with two of the customers, a couple, who then departed the aircraft and received compensation. The next customers approached were Dr. Dao and his wife. The supervisor apologized and explained they would also need to depart the aircraft, but Dr. Dao refused. The supervisor was unable to convince Dr. Dao to depart the aircraft. Given Dr. Dao’s unwillingness to deplane, the supervisor left the plane and spoke to the United zone controller, who indicated that authorities would be contacted. The supervisor went back on the plane to request again that Dr. Dao deplane and advised him that authorities would be contacted. At this point, one customer onboard the aircraft volunteered to change flights for $1,000 but United needed two volunteers in order to avoid having to remove the Daos. No other customers would volunteer unless United could guarantee an arrival in Louisville later that night. Given the fact that the 2:55 p.m. CDT departure remained on a maintenance delay, with a possibility of cancelling, United could not make that commitment.

Officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation, which has authority to respond to such airline requests and historically has been effective in getting customers to voluntarily comply, answered United’s request for assistance. These security officers were unable to gain Dr. Dao’s cooperation to depart the plane voluntarily.

At this time, the United supervisor left the aircraft and attempted to call a manager about the situation, and Dr. Dao, as evidenced by widely reported video footage, was physically removed from his seat by the Chicago Department of Aviation Officers. After being forcibly removed from the aircraft, Dr. Dao ran back onto the airplane and Chicago Department of Aviation Officers removed him for a second time. He was later taken to a local hospital.

All customers then deplaned. After approximately 40 minutes, the flight re boarded without the Daos and departed for Louisville.

 

So who is the “victim”? If you ask me, it’s United Airlines. They were put into a no-win situation by the weather, equipment, Enforcers not in their employ and by a passenger not willing to abide by the terms under which his ticket was sold. At first, United stood by its employees but their reputation was taking such a world-wide beating that they soon had their shareholders to appease, thereby abandoning their employees.

Also ‘victims’ were the sixty-six rule-abiding passengers whose flight was delayed by forty minutes due to the disruption caused by Dr. Dao. Escaping the ‘victim’ status were the 100+ passengers the next morning on the Louisville – Newark flight.

The LAST person who deserves ‘victim’ status is Dr. Dao.

 

 

The entire story, including the changes that United Airlines has introduced, is available here.

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