United Airlines Appears Committed To Bad Customer Experience


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United Airlines Drags Man Off PlaneIt can’t be accidental.  There is no way that a company as large as United Airlines can continue to flagrantly abuse its customers by accident.  The only explanation is that it is part of some clandestine mission or vision statement.  Perhaps they have discovered that continued negative press is actually increasing their profitability.  There are hundreds of scary United Airlines stories out there, and it looks like there is a new one which is destined to go as viral as the United Breaks Guitars story.

It happened on a flight from Chicago to Louisville yesterday.  The final incident was a result of a sequence of increasingly inane decisions.  It began with the airline overbooking the flight – a common airline practice which goes against every customer experience principle there is.  Then, when no passengers opted for the $800 payout to voluntarily leave the airline, they went to the computer and randomly selected four people to be removed from the plane.  Seriously?  Could it get any worse?

Yes, apparently it can.

A New Low In Customer Experience From United

One of the passengers selected by the computer refused to leave.  He claimed to be a doctor with patients he had to return to see.  (this may or may not have been true, but beside the point regardless).  United’s response?  They brought in security people, who physically dragged the man out of his seat and out off the plane – bloodying his lip in the process.  Oh.  My.  God.

Oh, Wait.  It Gets even Worse

It turns out that they were turfing people from the airplane to make room for their own employees who had to make it to Louisville.

There Were So Many Other Options That Would Have Created A Better Customer Experience

Just to be clear about one thing, this was United Airlines problem.  They created it – not the passengers.  So it makes no sense whatsoever that passengers should in any way be held accountable.  Setting aside the whole ‘stop-overbooking-your-flights’ thing, what were some of the other options?  The first might have been to simply hold an auction.  The couldn’t get passengers to budge at $800, but maybe they could have at $1,000 or $1,200.  They could just start raising the number until four people raised their hands.  Sure, it might have cost them a few hundred dollars in the short term – but at least everyone would have walked out with a great experience.  They also would have saved thousands in the inevitable upcoming lawsuit.

If it was that important for their staff to get to Louisville, they could have simply chartered a private jet to get them there.  Yes, it would have cost a few thousand dollars, but how much is all this negative publicity going to cost them.  And, just to reiterate, this was a problem of their own making.  If it cost them a few thousand extra dollars, well, sucks to be them.

I am continually astounded at how airlines like United continue to survive with so little respect for their customers.  I am equally baffled that the whole overbooking thing is still even legal.  According the London Daily Mail, around 50,000 people a year with valid plane tickets are bumped off flights because they have been overbooked.


Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. So tragic all the way around. I agree that United should have handled this differently, but I don’t think we can label their entire company based on one single event.

  2. I think it’s very easy to impugn United for this incident and for its unfortunate outcome. I have no doubt that most people will come down hard on the United, while having sympathy for the man (a doctor on his way to Louisville to see his patients? – that’s what he claimed). Basing my opinion on the video, it’s hard to feel any other way. I haven’t yet read corroborating information.

    In any event, whether the airline was technically within its legal right seems moot. It’s disturbing to see an otherwise civil, law-abiding passenger is forcibly removed from a flight. We can assess this result as a customer-service fail. As you point out, a little less rote rule-following and a smidgen of creativity and willingness to experiment with Econ 101 principles would have averted this problem, and had people talking about United in a much different way. In my view, this is way worse than “United broke my guitar.”

    My first reaction after I watched the video, was why, when nobody volunteered to leave, didn’t United simply increase the incentive? How about two free round trip tickets to anywhere? No? That, and $500 . . . ? The additional expense would be costed to the Louisville operation. Chump change compared to what the incident will cost United now.

    We had a similar issue on Washington DC’s Metro system several years ago. In that case, a station manager using a broom chased a passenger from one of the platforms (at the time, the passenger was disgruntled, but not posing a physical threat). It turned out that the incident was just the tip of a pervasive “us versus them” attitude at Metro, and it came alive for all to see in this ugly altercation.

    I don’t know whether that’s the case at United, but we’ll likely learn the answer soon.

  3. What many are missing here is that United did not offer the amount of money that is being quoted. They offered basically multiple coupons that could only be used to discount flights and expired in a year. So unless someone is a frequent flier, they had very little value. If they had actually offered a free flight or cash, they would have had volunteers and this never would have happened.

  4. Christine. You’re right about it being tragic. The real tragedy is that the airline has been plagued with poor decisions and customer experience for many years. Sadly, they appear either unwilling or incapable of putting the customer first.

  5. Hi Shaun: Washington Metro (aka WMATA) is an interesting case study in customer service. Immediately after the broom incident, Metro personnel went through rigorous customer relations skills training. WMATA’s PR department also made sure to widely publicize the effort. Since then, I’m not aware of any similar incidents, but the system has an abysmal safety record and a horrible internal culture. The two often go hand-in-hand. There are many financial problems, some of which are brought on by the complexities of operating in three jurisdictions – DC, Maryland, and Virginia – that aren’t prone to cooperation. A recent article on WMATA’s website describes their focus on customer service, WMATA’s Principles for Creating a Customer Focus https://planitmetro.com/2016/03/01/wmatas-planners-principles-for-creating-a-customer-focus/.

    When I need to get anywhere in the DC area, I most often drive. I ride Metro only when I have no other alternative. They still have a long way to go in fixing their problems.


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