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Why United Airlines can get away with treating its customers like garbage

United’s image is in the gutter. But the airline industry isn’t competitive enough for it to really matter. 

United Airlines Grounds All Flights Worldwide After Computer Glitch Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

United Airlines’ motto invites its customers to “fly the friendly skies” aboard its planes. But the airline’s actions on the ground will make you think twice.

On Sunday, police at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago boarded a United flight to Louisville prior to takeoff and physically pulled a man out of his seat, ultimately dragging him down the aisle and off the plane by his arms after he refused to leave the seat he had paid for. Videos of the incident taken by passengers quickly spread online.

The videos are as upsetting as they are infuriating. Passengers who witnessed the incident said the man being dragged out was a doctor who, like them, had paid for a ticket and had a seat assignment. He reportedly refused to leave his seat because he had patients to attend to in Louisville the next day.

According to United, the airline had overbooked the flight — a common practice that’s usually resolved because airlines find volunteers to change flights, or because ticketed passengers miss their flights. After United offered travel vouchers and didn’t find any takers, the man and three of his fellow passengers were reportedly randomly selected and asked to deboard. The New York Times reports that four United employees needed to board the overbooked flight in their place.

When the man didn’t comply, brute force was applied.

In the wake of the videos and news of the incident going viral, United apologized for having to “re-accommodate” those passengers.

This plane dragging incident is the airline’s second controversy in the past few weeks. At the end of March, the company found itself under harsh public scrutiny after it refused to allow two girls flying on “buddy passes” — as guests of an employee — to board because they were reportedly wearing leggings, which the airline said did not adhere to its dress code for that class of travel. According to United, that episode, like Sunday’s forceful deplaning, was simply the airline following protocol.

As NPR reported, “United did not apologize for enforcing its buddy pass dress code. They explained the rule and said they regularly remind employees of it. ‘To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome,’ the airline said.”

United’s unsympathetic response and lack of self-awareness has made it a target for anyone who has ever had a terrible flying experience.

Even if United was well within its rights both with the leggings incident and in bumping the Chicago passenger from his flight, most people can agree that its public explanation in both cases wasn’t a good look. But the issues run deeper than one airline, and the outrage that’s sprung up in response speaks to what a nightmare air travel can be and how the airline industry doesn’t seem to want to improve the experience. And perhaps more terrifying is the fact that the industry doesn’t really need to.

United can legally bump you from a flight you paid for, even if you’ve already boarded and taken your seat

Perhaps the biggest question initially surrounding the video was whether United was justified in removing the man from its flight: Can an airline forcibly take you off a plane if you’ve paid for a ticket, have a seat assignment, and have boarded?

The simple answer: Yes.

As my colleague Tim Lee explains, airlines often book more people than they have space for on a given flight. Usually everything ultimately evens out — because people don’t show up, because flights and itineraries are swapped, or because airlines ask for and find volunteers from an overbooked flight to switch to a different one, in exchange for a voucher for future travel.

This flight was one of those times when the math didn’t work out.

In short, you can involuntarily get bumped from a flight that you’ve paid for, but airlines have to offer you compensation. Lee writes:

Rather, the problem was that United was too stingy in offering passengers compensation to voluntarily leave the airplane. Federal regulations give airlines a relatively easy out in situations like this: They can bump a passenger involuntarily if they pay four times the ticket price (up to $1,350).

That $1,350 figure was never reached in this case — news reports say that United offered up to $800, and then implemented the random drawing where four people were selected to get bumped from the flight.

United maintains that it acted within its rights.

On Monday, after news of the incident broke, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” customers:

There’s something hilariously terrifying about Munoz’s use of the phrase “re-accommodating.” In normal instances, “re-accommodating” sounds like it involves paying for a nearby hotel after canceling a flight or offering vouchers for future travel, but in this case, it refers to heaving a human being into a narrow airplane aisle and then pulling him out of the aircraft while he’s on his back.

"We followed the right procedures," United spokesperson Charlie Hobart told the Associated Press. "That plane had to depart. We wanted to get our customers to their destinations."

In March, United said two girls wearing leggings could harm its reputation. Now the airline has a terrible one.

What makes Sunday’s transgression worse from a public relations standpoint is that this is the second time in a few weeks that United has been the subject of widespread outrage. The violent incident looks even worse as a follow-up to the aforementioned leggings controversy in March, when the airline refused to allow two teenage girls to fly from Denver to Minneapolis because the girls were wearing leggings that didn’t adhere to its dress code for buddy pass travel.

At the time, United was so concerned about its image that it prevented two girls in leggings from “representing the company” as guests of its employees. But now that image is in the garbage, because the airline has quickly become known as one that will physically pull paying customers off a flight if it has to.

On Monday evening, Munoz sent a letter to United employees stating that he stood by them and the actions taken in Chicago.

“Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight,” Munoz said in his letter. “He repeatedly declined to leave.”

As many have observers have noted, Munoz states that the agents at O’Hare were “left with no choice” but to have security bodily remove the man from the plane. But it seems like they could have tried to offer passengers more money — at least as much as that $1,350 limit set by regulators — before resorting to something so physically forceful.

To be clear, United and the police are separate entities. The people who dragged the man off the flight were Chicago aviation security officers from the Chicago Police Department, not United agents. United’s employees, as Munoz explained in his Monday evening letter, were just following protocol in calling the police.

According to the New York Times, “[T]he Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement on Monday that the incident ‘was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure’ and that an officer had been placed on leave pending a review of the matter.”

Of course, United isn’t the only airline that overbooks flights. According to the US Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report from March 2017, United actually ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to the rate of involuntary denied boardings (0.40) per 10,000 passengers — airlines like JetBlue and Southwest have higher involuntary denied boarding rates. But as Nate Silver pointed out, United also isn’t as aggressive or as successful as airlines like Delta when it comes to finding volunteers to give up their seats when a plane is overbooked.

US Department of Transportation

But the complaint here is that it seems like there are missing steps between asking a man to leave an overbooked flight because he’s been bumped and, if he refuses, knocking that man to the ground and dragging him off the plane, busting his lip in the process.

If every airline deals with denied involuntary boardings — some 8,955 occurred between October and December 2016, according to the DOT report — why did this one result in someone literally being dragged into the aisle? Is that a reflection of United’s policy? And is United’s valuing its policy over its customers indicative of a bigger problem in the industry?

The outrage in response to these United incidents is exacerbated by people’s frustrations with the domestic airline industry

It’s hard to imagine another industry getting away with rescinding services that have already been paid for.

“How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?” Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.

Even for people who haven’t had a hellacious airline experience like United’s violent deplaning, the flying experience can be frustrating. Getting from one place to another can feel like an expensive hell of cramming into a tiny seat and paying fees for luggage that we didn’t have to pay in the past.

Flights are still expensive, even though the cost of jet fuel, a reason commonly cited by airlines for raising prices and adding fees, has gone down — in 2016, jet fuel prices were a third of what they were in 2014, but ticket prices didn’t decrease in kind. It’s cheaper for airlines to operate now than it was a few years ago, but they haven’t passed any savings on to customers.

Even though there are all these grievances and annoyances, and even though the concept of airlines taking your money and denying you a service is maddening, it’s the way airlines currently and will continue to work.

The bottom line is that the commercial airline industry isn’t competitive — four airlines make up 80 percent of the business. According to BuzzFeed, the US airline industry made an estimated $20 billion in profits in 2016. And there’s no incentive for them to make our experiences better, because customers don’t have much choice.

Airlines can make big money while shoving customer experiences into the gutter. What’s in it for them to change if what they’re doing is already profitable?

The small glimmer of hope for customers who are unhappy with airlines’ behavior is that United’s actions have gone viral. People with smartphones are everywhere, making it simple to document a grievance and share it on social media. With all the different videos taken on Sunday, it’s easy to see the difference between United’s official account of the man’s “re-accommodation” and what passengers actually witnessed.

Perhaps United’s massive bungle and the ensuing public relations nightmare might give the airline pause before it defends such actions. And maybe other airlines are watching how unhappy people are with United and are taking notes — there’s an article being widely shared online about how Delta ultimately paid one woman and her family $11,000 for volunteering multiple times to take different flights.

But judging from United’s lack of accountability in its official responses, it doesn’t seem that message is getting through fast enough.

Watch: Fuel is cheap. Why are we still paying to check bags?