Humanizing the airline business

Never before was there so much publicity given to customers’ complaints about mistreatment by the airlines in North America ever since the David Dao incident when the seated passenger was forcibly removed from an United Airlines flight by security personnel. Stories of being bumped off a flight abound, and added to these other stories that include flight cancellations and misconnections, checking into an incorrect flight that took the passenger half way around the world, and death of a treasured animal in the cargo hold.

The beef is more about the way such a situation was handled by the airlines than the fact that it did occur. Take, for example, the incident of a 15-year old boy, technically classified as a minor, who was travelling from Denver to Thunder Bay via Toronto on Air Canada. He missed his connection when the flight out of Denver was delayed, and Air Canada duly rebooked him to fly to Thunder Bay the following day but did not offer any accommodation or vouchers for food.

Courtesy Air Canada

In an interview with BC News, Derrin Espinola said he felt “trapped… very hungry, very tired, very scared.” No one helped, even as he went from counter to counter to explain his situation. While Air Canada had issued a statement to say it was “truly sorry”, the blame appeared to have been placed on runway construction works at Toronto’s Pearson Airport and “exacerbated in this case by adverse weather”.

Was this really Espinola’s fault for having faith in the airline’s trusted his service? His mother, Karin Patock, who tried in vain to reach the airline by phone, said she chose Air Canada for its policy about flight delays as stated on its website: “Youths travelling alone (ages 12 to 17) will be taken care of by our agents. We will also arrange for accommodations, meals and transportation if needed.”

The spate of stories now made possible by the power of the social media may have caused many travellers to not believe that airlines in pursuing the dollar do really care for all that they boast to be better than their competitors. But they are beginning to listen, or so it seems as each time a nasty incident like this happens, they apologize readily and are said to be reaching out to the affected passengers and even compensating them as some form of amelioration for their distress, however irreparable.

In the case of denied boarding, which will continue to be practised by most of the airlines with the exception of JetBlue Airlines and Southwest Airlines in their stated policy, the major airlines have vowed to reduce overbooking and increased their compensation for volunteers who give up their seats.

Certainly the authorities have also taken note of the frustrations of passengers within the purview of their legislative responsibility to protect the rights of travellers.

Airline advertisements generally paint the romance of caring crew and other personnel to reduce the stress of travelling. Mind you, many of them do live up to their word. Recent incidents could signal a timely re-focus on procedural constraints and methodology in tackling difficult situations. The social media has given voice to travellers, and what is happening is a humanizing of the airline business as a reminder to carriers that they are dealing not with mere business numbers but people who deserve to be treated with dignity.

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”.

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.