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.

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Southwest will follow JetBlue: Better a policy of no overbooking than compensation

Courtesy Getty Images

AFTER the fallout of United Airlines in an ugly overbooking situation, Delta Air Lines said it would pay any volunteer who gives up a seat close to US$10,000, which United now emulates. But Southwest Airlines does it better with the assurance it will not overbook seats.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said the airline “had been thinking about ending overbooking for a long time”. Thanks to United, it is now looking to implementing the new policy sooner with “better forecasting tools and a new reservations system coming online next month.”

In fact, JetBlue Airways already has the policy in place. In a published “Customer Service Plan”, the airline states: “JetBlue does not overbook flights.” There may be exceptions to the rule. The statement goes on to state: “However, some situations, such as flight cancellations and reaccommodation, might create a similar situation.” In which event, affected passengers will be paid denied boarding compensation of US$1350.

Courtesy JetBlue Airways

In the present climate when travellers are weighing in on the issue, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes reaffirmed the airline’s policy. “We are committed to our policy of not overselling flights,” he said. “And our crew members have always been in power to make decisions in rare cases where we have to put someone on a flight.”

Last year, according to the Transportation Department, JetBlue bumped off 3,176 passengers involuntarily while 1,705 passengers agreed to take another flight, out of 34.7 million passengers.
This, Hayes said, was largely the result of downsizing planes.

Ironically, Southwest had the highest total number of involuntary denied boardings last year – at 0.99 per 10,000 passengers,. JetBlue was not far behind 0.92. The rates for both airlines more than double United’s 0.43.

One badly handled incident, so it seems, can really do more damage than the number of incidents added up might suggest.

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.