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A few weeks ago we saw Twitter explode with outcry against United over #leggingsgate (or #spandexgate…take your pick). Two girls were denied boarding by United gate agents due to not following the appropriate dress code for non-rev travelers. You can read Dan’s take on that incident (SEE: Thoughts on #spandexgate – you’ll never win by being a jerk to 10 year old girls).

In this situation United had the legal right (maybe?) to make the decision they did. The travelers flying on a non-rev ticket should have known the dress code. I personally side with the airline’s decision from a policy standpoint. But from a PR standpoint, it was stupid.

United can’t catch a break

With that public relations debacle barely behind them, United has stepped in it again. And this time it’s worse. It’s almost like the airline intentionally decided to up the ante.

If you haven’t heard by now, a man was dragged off an oversold United flight by Chicago police on Sunday after refusing to give up his seat. The man claimed he was a doctor and had to get home to his patients and had to be forcibly removed from the plane. He really put the “involuntary” in involuntarily denied boarding.

Absurdly, the man was able to run back on the plane a little while later, bloodied and disoriented! All the while other passengers had their cell phones out to capture the action, which then quickly hit the news. The situation is horrible, both for the man and for the airline.

United’s debacle in Chicago

The current situation takes things to an entirely new level. United could have done a few things to prevent this PR nightmare from occurring.

The main compounding factor is this situation is that United had to get crew to Louisville to service other flights. Because of this, United had to bump 4 passengers from the flight. This is a major bummer, but if they didn’t bump the passengers, the other flights would end up delayed and/or canceled.  But in this case, it’s not like Chicago and Louisville are THAT far away – it probably would have been cheaper to just hire them an Uber to DRIVE to Louisville!  Plus United has a hub in Chicago – seems like they could have found a way to get another plane there to get the crew where it needed to be

Typically, an airline first offers compensation for anyone willing to be voluntarily bumped from a flight. If there are no initial volunteers, the amount is typically increased until someone takes the bait. This usually prevents the unfortunate situation of what is called being “involuntarily denied boarding”.

Why did United stop upping the compensation?

This is the biggest mystery to me. It makes zero sense to me that they stopped at $800. The compensation for being denied boarding in this incident should have been $1,350, if I’m not mistaken.

There is no reason the gate agents should have not upped the amount until they matched it in order to get people to volunteer to leave the plane. This is one of those instances where agents should have the discretion to offer compensation. But no, a computer tells them the maximum compensation they can offer.

If it was that critical to get crew to Louisville to service other flights, United should have been willing to offer substantially more for the inconvenience. Not getting the crew to the new location would mean that other flights would be delayed and/or canceled, so I can see why it was imperative to bump 4 people from this flight. But this critical need makes it doubly important to offer enough compensation to coax a few volunteers to stay until the next day. It is utterly absurd United stopped at $800. This is the same point Lucky at One Mile at at Time hammers home (SEE: The root cause of United’s denied boarding fiasco).

View from the Wing calls this course of action a ‘myth’. You can read his take here. Personally, I think the airline should have upped the compensation to the legally required amount for IDB before they pursued the course of action they did.

Why was the man boarded?

This is another maddening question. This entire situation should have been resolved before a single person got on that plane. If you’re going to bump people from a flight, it makes zero sense to board them.

All of this should have been figured out at the gate. Tensions probably would not have run as high, and it would have been easier to bump the 4 passengers from the flight.

Did the Chicago police act appropriately?

In my opinion, the police never should have been called. If United had followed a better course of action from the beginning, there never would have been a need to bring the police on board to remove the passenger.

But once they were on board, the passenger should have complied. Obviously he should have complied before that, but the police should have been enough of a sign that he *must* leave that plane, no matter the consequences.

Still, I don’t believe the situation warranted the police literally ripping him from his seat and dragging him down the aisle! In the process his face was smashed on the armrest. The passenger then managed to return to the aircraft! That’s the most ludicrous part.

The Chicago police department has placed the officer who dragged the man off the plane on leave, which is entirely appropriate in my opinion.

Will this change the way United handles bumps in the future?

I certainly hope so. This should be a poignant lesson an airline already smarting from their incident just a few weeks ago. United’s CEO Oscar Muñoz has issued a formal apology.

There is likely occasion for a lawsuit here, and United will be out a lot more money fighting that than what they would have paid in compensation to a few travelers.

They are also paying in terms of PR. Big time. I hope this debacle changes company policy in multiple ways.

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