United’s Official Report On Flight 3411 Raises More Questions Than It Answers; Plus, The Excellent Customer Service Changes That United Will Make Going ForwardThursday, April 27th, 2017
Update: In a surprise to nobody, United has settled with Dr. Dao, effectively bringing the matter to a close. The settlement amount will remain confidential…anyone care to take a guess as to how much United contributed to Dr. Dao’s retirement fund in order to avoid dragging the case out in court?
— Jennifer Hayden (@Scout_Finch) April 27, 2017
United has released their official report on what happened on flight 3411 earlier this month when Dr. Dao was dragged off the plane by Chicago aviation police officers.
You can read United’s report above, but allow me to cut through some of the corporate speak and add some of my own research:
United flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville on 4/9 was operated by an ERJ-170 with 70 seats (6 first, 16 economy plus, 48 economy minus). It was scheduled to depart at 5:40pm and was overbooked by 1 seat. All of the passengers refused to volunteer their seats, so one passenger without a seat assignment was involuntarily denied boarding at the gate and handed a check on the spot. That left 70 passengers to board the flight.
Meanwhile, United flight 4448 (United fails to mention the flight number in the report) from Chicago to Louisville on 4/9 was operated by an ERJ-145 with 50 seats. It was scheduled to depart Chicago at 2:55pm and was carrying 4 deadheading United crew members on their way to Louisville to work on United flight 3658 from Louisville to Newark, scheduled to depart on 4/10 at 6:55am. That flight was experiencing mechanical issues and United was unsure that they were going to be able to fix the plane. The crew left flight 4448 and went to flight 3411 after it was already boarded. United had to get the crew to Louisville or else the flight to Newark and more flights afterward would have been cancelled. Thus United wound up needing to find 4 more volunteers to give up their seats from flight 3411, after it had already boarded.
The United report completely fails to mention United flight 4771 from Chicago to Louisville on 4/9 which was operated by an ERJ-135 with 37 seats. Flight 4771 departed on time at 9pm. It’s unclear if this flight was full as the flight is not even mentioned in the report.
-It’s not clear from the report why the crew didn’t switch from flight 4448 to flight 3411 before flight 3411 had boarded, which would have spared the entire incident.
-It’s also unclear from the report as to why the passengers onboard United flight 3411 were told that they wouldn’t be able to fly to Louisville until the next day, when several seats aboard flight 4448 were apparently just vacated by the crew. Why weren’t they offered the ability to fly on flight 4448, with the caveat that it was undergoing maintenance and might be cancelled?
-And why couldn’t the passengers onboard United flight 3411 be offered travel on flight 4771? Even if that flight was full and there were zero no-shows, United could have tried to find other people to volunteer their seats from that flight.
In 2008 I was bumped off of 7 United flights over a 2 day span from Chicago to Cleveland while I racked up vouchers and kept getting reaccommodated in first class on the next flight, despite the next flight being oversold. So United agents are definitely able to move volunteers onto another flight, even if it is oversold.
Flight 4448 did get its mechanical issues fixed and wound up departing Chicago at 9:42pm. It’s unclear how many passengers were aboard as the report glosses over that issue.
Back to flight 3411. The gate agent was only authorized to offer $800 in United funny money, a hotel for the night, and a flight to Louisville on 4/10. Nobody accepted. If the gate agent would have offered a flight later that day it’s very likely that they would have found volunteers, but the gate agent did not offer a same day flight.
The computer generated the names of 4 passengers to involuntarily remove from the flight based on who was in the cheapest fare class, who checked in the latest, and who wasn’t an elite member, an unaccompanied minor, or a disabled traveler.
2 couples were chosen. The first couple deplaned and were presumably given an involuntary denied boarding check for 4 times their airfare (capped at $1,350). Dr. Dao and his wife were also chosen and of course he refused and the police were called. He was physically abused and removed from the flight by Chicago aviation police officers who lied about what happened and are now on administrative leave. Dr. Dao subsequently ran back onto the flight and then had to be removed for a 2nd time. The entire flight was then deplaned and reboarded, with the 4 deadheading crew members taking the seats of the 4 bumped passengers. Flight 3411 departed Chicago at 7:42pm.
United admits to 4 shortcomings. Calling the police when nobody’s safety was in jeopardy, rebooking the crew members after the flight was boarded, not offering enough compensation for people to volunteer their seat, and not training their employees to properly deal with a situation like this.
United is clear to note that none of those were the fault of the gate agent or flight attendants. United’s policy about calling the police was vague, United policy allowed for deadheading crew members to bump paying passengers off a plane, United didn’t allow the gate agent to offer more than $800, and United didn’t train the agent for the situation.
United steers clear of blaming the crew for not intervening when they saw how the Chicago aviation police officers were treating Dr. Dao. Then again they were likely just as in shock as most passengers were about what was going on.
United is frustratingly vague about the other flights and whether the gate agent should have offered to at least try to accommodate passengers on the other 2 flights going from Chicago to Louisville that night, despite the mechanical issues that one of the flights was having.
At any rate, good things will come out of all of this:
1. As of 4/12, United will no longer call on police to remove customers from a flight, unless there is a safety issue.
Then again, Delta just kicked someone off a plane for using the bathroom under the guise of it being a security threat, so pretty much everything on a plane can be construed to be a safety issue.
2. Effective today, United will no longer involuntarily remove a passenger once they are seated, unless there is a safety issue.
3. Effective tomorrow, United will authorize gate agents to offer up to $10,000 in United travel vouchers to get people to volunteer their seat. This should effectively eliminate the need to ever involuntarily deny boarding.
I doubt United will ever have to offer nearly that much money, but it makes for good clickbait titles which will surely go viral. In practice people will grab the offer when it’s much lower than $10,000.
4. By June, United will make a team to assist gate agents with creative rebooking solutions, such as flights on other airlines, other airports, and ground transportation when needed.
This is something that savvy travelers already do. Gate agents often don’t see options that Google Flights make easy to see. They’re typically more than willing to listen to suggestions if you tell them your desired alternate routing options. But it’s good that even non-savvy passengers should benefit from this.
5. As of 4/14, United requires that deadheading crew members heading to work on another flight be booked for travel at least an hour before departure.
I have to wonder if this will really be enforced. Will United really be willing to cancel a flight from another airport if the only way to get crew there is by booking them within an hour onto a full flight? Truthfully, with the new compensation levels they can still book them and find people more than willing to volunteer their seat.
6. Training will begin in August for gate agents and flight attendants to deal with situations like the one on flight 3411 without involving the police.
7. Later this year, United will allow passengers checking into oversold flights to enter how much compensation, if any, that they would accept to be bumped off of the flight. United will take the lowest bids and give the bumped passengers the compensation they requested.
While you might think you’re clever by entering $10,000, there’s likely someone else willing to get bumped for $500.
8. United will reduce overbooking on flights with low volunteer rates. That is beneficial for United, especially with the new higher compensation levels. United says this reduction in overbooking will focus on the last flights of the day to a destination, when an overnight stay would be required. That seems to me to imply that flight 3411 was the last flight of the day, though as we know, it was not.
The last 2 items are general customer service improvements, which are both excellent:
9. Later this year, United gate agents and flight attendants will be empowered to award passengers miles, travel credit, or other forms of compensation when things go wrong.
You shouldn’t need to email customer service to get compensated for a problem. Once this system is rolled out, United will be able to deal with issues on the spot.
10. As of June, United will stop asking for proof of what was in your checked luggage when they lose your luggage. Instead they will cut a check for $1,500 cash per lost bag, no questions asked. You can still file proof of loss if there was more than $1,500 of covered items in the bag.
This is long overdue as well. There’s no reason for an airline to force you to find documentation of items purchased when they lose your bag.
All in all these are some very customer friendly changes, it’s just a shame that it takes a horrific incident for them to be implemented. I just wish United was a bit more forthcoming about the other flights that operated that evening from Chicago to Louisville…