United Airlines moves ahead of Singapore Airlines

Courtesy Getty Images

United Airlines does it again, stealing march on rival Singapore Airlines launching its nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore – now the world’s longest nonstop flight – on Oct 28. The flight covers a distance of 8,700 miles and may take as long as 18 hours.

SIA plans to introduce a similar service next year.

Back in February last year, United started a nonstop from San Francisco to Singapore, ahead of SIA’s introduction which came months later in October.

Demand for United’s Los Angeles flight seems healthy, considering the low launch fares for a round trip as low as US$384 which no doubt boosted the sale. No doubt it is good publicity to raise awareness, and it looks like the competition will benefit travellers when SIA joins the race next year. Meantime, United enjoys the run-in to build loyalty.

In Singapore, United’s Vice President of Atlantic and Pacific Sales Marcel Fuchs said: “United is proud to launch the long-awaited Singapore-Los Angeles route for our customers in Singapore.”

In the bigger picture, United must be looking at the initiative as being “the leading US carrier to Asia” as mentioned by its senior vice president of worldwide sales Dave Hilfman, who added that the new route would consolidate the airline’s position in Asia. Conversely, Mr Fuchs said: “The addition of this new exclusive service gives more options for our customers to conveniently connect to our extensive US network.”

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United Airlines repairs image, ups compensation for passengers

In the aftermath of an ugly incident when a passenger on an United Airlines flight was forcibly removed to seat a positioning crew employee, the airline is taking the cue from rival Delta Air Lines’ offer of up to US$9,950 for passengers who volunteer to give up their seats in an overbooked situation. United said it would offer up to US$10,000.

In an effort to repair its damaged image, United made a few promises. It would no longer require police personnel to remove seated passengers in an overbooked flight while taking action at the same time to reduce such flights. Positioning crew members would be required to book into a flight at least an hour ahead of a flight. It would all in all improve customer satisfaction which will be a yardstick to assess staff’s performance.

In a statement, Untied said: “Our goal is to reduce incidents of involuntary denial of boarding to as close to zero as possible and become a more customer-focused airline.”

Incidentally, it has been argued that the David Dao incident was not a case of an overbooked flight but that United was bumping off passengers to make room for their crew members. Dao’s lawyers are likely to argue that it cannot be said that he was denied boarding as he was seated in the plane.

While it appears that US carriers are beginning to compete with each other to attract customers with the generous offer, it is only fair that passengers who are inconvenienced are amply compensated for more than just the cost of a ticket, never mind that there may be a small number who are on the lookout for a windfall which they rightly deserve. The issue is not who will be taking advantage of the offer but that there be takers.

Notwithstanding too that it may well be academic if the airlines better manage the booking, there will be still be calls for volunteers as airlines weigh in on the option as the situation arises. They are unlikely to stop overselling if that favours the bottom line.

Come June, United will want to be seen to be even more generous, paying passengers whose bags are permanently lost an amount of US$1,500 for the value of the bag and its contents. There will be “no questions asked”.

Reviving airlines’ customer care

US carriers are earning a bad name for customer service. Now it is American Airlines’ turn to have a brush with its customers. A pram forcibly removed by an employee struck a mother and almost hurt her baby. When a passenger intervened, the employee told him to “stay out of this” and then challenged him, “Hit me! Come on, bring it on.”

In a statement issued by the airline, American said: “This does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident.”

Admittedly there are rules and regulations to be complied with, but enforcement may be handled in different manners. So said American in its statement: “The actions of our team member do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care.”

The employee was suspended and the affected passenger upgraded to first class on another flight.

It is encouraging to see fellow passengers standing up to the mistreatment. And if there is a good side to all the nastiness, it is the message sent to the airlines of the importance of good customer care in the competition.

An earlier incident on United Airlines triggered a call on social media to boycott the airline. In the aftermath of the incident, United said its management and board “take recent events extremely seriously and are in the process of developing targeted compensation program design adjustments to ensure that employees’ incentive opportunities for 2017 are directly and meaningfully tied to progress in improving the customer experience.”

For United Airlines, it never rains but it pours

Courtesy Getty Images

For United Airlines, it never rains but it pours. A passenger flying in business class from Houston in Texas to Calgary in Canada said a scorpion fell from the overhead bin onto his head during lunch service. He put it on his plate and was stung before flinging it to the floor. A crew member placed a cup over the insect, which was subsequently flushed down the toilet.

However, the passenger said he had no plants to sue United, which had offered him and his companion flying credit as compensation.

These days, all kinds of strange creatures are flying too. Last month a rat was found on a British Airways flight departing from London Heathrow for San Francisco. There were earlier stories about the rodent found on flights operated by Air India, Emirates Airlines and a Chinese carrier Loong Air. In March, a snake was found loose on a Ravn Alaska commuter flight, apparently a pet left behind by a passenger on an earlier flight. In January, Emirates cancelled a flight from Dbai to Muscat after a snake was spotted in the cargo hold. Earlier in November last year, a snake fell from an overhead storage compartment in first class on n Aeromexico flight.

So United is not alone, but it must be wondering when all the flak is going to stop raining down on it. Everything that happens subsequent to the David Dao incident could be another contentious issue to drag its name into the mud.

There was some good news for the airline though at the start of the week as it reported a profitable first quarter which exceeded expectations even though there was a sharp drop in profit of almost 70 per cent to US$96 million. And while one wonders how the Dao incident would affect profitability in the current quarter, United president Scott Kirby said: “We saw positive trends in the revenue environment in the quarter and are optimistic about the year ahead.”

Anyway, to repair its dented image, CEO Oscar Munoz vowed: “ We are more determined than ever to put our customers at the center of everything we do.” From now on, police personnel will not be called to remove passengers from a flight in an overbooked situation.

Time helps, if United stays competitive and shows it means what it promised.

More offloading stories: What’s right, what’s wrong?

Suddenly, following the United Airlines incident of a passenger being forcibly removed from the aircraft in an overbooked situation (see The saga continues: United Airlines CEO promises no repeat of David Dao incident, Apr 14, 2017; United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm, Apr 11, 2017; Fly the friendly skies? Not on United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017), air travellers are awakened to the harsh reality that even when they hold a fully-paid for confirmed seat, there is no guarantee they may not be bumped off.

Suddenly too, stories about more incidents of being bumped off are circulating via the social media.

#1
A passenger travelling with her husband and a child happily publicized a windfall when Delta Air Lines compensated her US$11,000 for giving up their seats.

Yes, Delta has announced a change in its policy to compensate volunteers an amount as high as US$10,000 for giving up their seats. More specifically, gate agents can offer up to US$2,000, up from the previous maximum of US$800, and supervisors can offer up to $9,950, up from $1,350.

That’s mighty generous of Delta, and why not if it means taking down the competition? However, a recently published list of the ten worst US carriers for overbooked flights did not list Delta, which means the offer may not be made as often as you might think.

Many people believe if United had upped the compensation, it would have been spared the bad PR patch it went through.

#2

Courtesy Air Canada

Just as soon as the Canadian authorities quickly reacted to the United debacle and vowed to protect consumers’ rights, a story surfaced of an incident on Air Canada of a 10-year-old child being denied boarding. His mother asked if an adult travelling with them could give up his seat for the child and was told that seat could not be guaranteed for the boy and would likely go to another passenger.

Oh, come on, Air Canada, to think this could happen in a country known for its people’s compassion!

The airline now said they were “following up to understand what went wrong” and that they had apologized to the family and offered a C$2,500 (US$1,866) voucher. If only airlines could understand how money cannot adequately make up for a disrupted holiday and the stress they caused, all the more in this case of separating a child and his parents.

#3
A couple posted their story of being asked to leave the aircraft of yet another United Airlines flight, and this was not a case of an overbooked situation. Apparently they found another passenger lying across their assigned seats, asleep, and decided to sit in a different row which happened to be “economy plus” seats . According to the crew, the couple tried to sit in an upgraded seat and refused to comply with instructions to return to their booked seats.

Well, well, it looks like anything United now does that displeases a passenger is wrong, even if it means following the rules. It is every traveller’s right to heed the call to boycott the airline after the way it treated passenger David Dao, but it is not fair to take advantage of the airline’s vulnerability.

The saga continues: United Airlines CEO promises no repeat of David Dao incident

Courtesy Getty Images

The saga of the United Airlines PR disaster in forcibly removing a fare-paying passenger from a flight because of an overbooked situation continues (see Fly the friendly skies? Not with United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017 and United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm, Apr 11, 2017).

United CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial statement of the “upsetting” incident was decried by netizens as being non-apologetic when he followed up with a letter to staff stating his support of their action as being procedural, adding that the passenger now identified as Dr David Dao was “disruptive and belligerent” which might suggest his mistreatment was justified. According to witnesses’ accounts, Mr Munoz had been misinformed.

The backlash on social media with calls to boycott United led to a more formal apology that in the words of Mr Munoz “no one should ever be mistreated this way.” In an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America, he said he felt “ashamed” watching the video and promised to review the airline’s policy and procedures. He promised that “this will never happen again on a United flight” with the assurance that the airline would no longer ask police officers to remove passengers from an overbooked flight.

The US Department of Transportation is also reviewing to see if United violated rules on overselling flights.

If you had been rudely awakened to the reality that even with a fully paid-up confirmed seat you could still be bumped off a flight, hold your horses. It can still happen, hopefully the occasion will be few and far between and that it will be handled fairly with civility and respect. In the said United incident, when no one volunteered to give up his or her seat, the decision was relegated to a random selection by the computer. That became a matter of chance, although one never knows how the selection was programmed.

Customers are more likely to be receptive to a more predictable system with some logic attached to it. Some airlines adopt the LIFO protocol, denying boarding to those at the end of the line. So, you can reduce the odds by checking-in early. Other airlines may be guided by a priority list, taking into account the status of the traveller as to whether, for example, he or she is a frequent flier, a fare-paying passenger as opposed to a complimentary ticket holder or staff passenger; the type of fare (there are many tiers even within the same cabin); the nature of the travel such as end-point or with connections, and if visas are involved; and the way you dress. So you take your chances, knowingly.

On the question of attire, United ran into a bad PR patch in another incident when two teenaged girls were denied boarding because they wore leggings. There was a time when Qantas frowned even on tees. Then, travellers dressed more formally, and there was the odd chance that in an overbooked situation in coach, you might be upgraded because you were in tie and suit. But these days, the manner of attire, unless it is deemed indecent and provocative, is a touchy issue. As social standards keep changing, so it is necessary to continually review and update the protocol.

United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm

In the aftermath of what appeared to be visibly heavy-handed action in forcibly removing a passenger from its flight in an overbooked situation (see Fly the friendly skies: Not with United Airlines, Apr 10, 2017), United Airlines flew deeper into a PR storm when its CEO Oscar Munoz’s asserted that he stood behind his staff who had “followed established procedures.”

Courtesy Reuters

In a letter to staff, Mr Munoz wrote: “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

The social media reacted quickly to lampoon Mr Munoz, with calls to boycott United and jokes about the airline’s policy to “re-accommodate” customers as its motto. It subverted an initial apology into a non-apology, and for not recognizing the way the passenger was treated and its use of force. The passenger, a doctor, was later pictured with blood on his face.

Suddenly air travellers are realizing that they may be booted from a flight event though they had paid for a confirmed seat, and through no fault of theirs. So it’s safer to bet on a more reliable airline and one which will treat you with some respect and dignity in the odd chance of this happening, and memory is a powerful guide.

Mr Munoz had underestimated the reach of the adverse publicity, not only in the United States but across the globe. Its stock fell four per cent in early trading.

While there is comfort in the US Department of Transportation’s commitment to “protecting the rights of consumers” as it looked into the matter, it is time that United and other airlines re-examine the antiquated practice of overbooking. Granted that there may be times when this cannot be helped, there had to be a better way of handling the situation.

To be fair, airlines that find the need to “re-accommodate” their passengers do normally offer some form of compensation in cash or credits or other perks, and there are customers who are quite happy to chance upon the small “windfall”. Airlines cannot ignore the genuine nightmare when one’s plans are disrupted, and the cost of that consequence may be higher than the compensation. Yet one wonders if United had upped the compensation for the said flight, there might be a taker.

By sheer pressure of the negative public reaction, United Airlines said it would review its policies with Mr Munoz now admitting “no one should ever be mistreated this way.” There are lessons to learn, and the airline will communicate the results of its review by the end of the month.

The unfortunate incident has renewed the constant call by consumer groups for protection of their rights. The US, Canada and the European Union have enacted laws that penalize airlines for misrepresenting fares, and that require them to compensate customers for denied boarding, flight cancellations and delays, and baggage mishandlings amongst other things – such events that are within an airline’s control. Unfortunately, enforcement has often been stifled by cumbersome and unwieldy procedures, contentious debate and the lack of resources for monitoring. But we remain optimistic.