Kempner: Hey, United, paying passengers is better than dragging them

How much do you think it would have cost United Airlines to have avoided the latest viral video debacle that has enraged consumers (at least those who didn’t scoff at a forcibly bumped passenger’s screams)?

My guess is $1,000. But, heck, maybe United could have sweetened the pot by just a couple hundred bucks to try to convince one more passenger to give up their seat and take a later flight. Instead, a man was bloodied and dragged out of the seat he paid for, all caught on video. Later, he’s shown returning to the plane, trotting up and down the aisle, repeatedly saying, “I have to go home.”

The airline industry has a hard time resisting the urge to stuff itself into a meat grinder every once in a while.

It’s been a bad few days for the industry. It took Delta five days of flight cancellations to fully regain its composure after strong storms in Atlanta last week. Travelers, some of whom slept in airports and waited hours to talk to Delta representatives, were befuddled about why it took so long.

In United’s bumping case, the resulting marketing mess has been ugly. It gives customers more reasons to doubt whether they will get the flights they paid for. And it makes them question the kindness of carriers, despite the good works of plenty of front-line airline employees. United’s stock price dropped Tuesday, eliminating a couple hundred million dollars in value. An initial pretend apology by CEO Oscar Munoz made matters way worse: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Money talks

Money can solve a lot of problems. It should have been enough to have avoided this involuntary bumping in the first place. In fact, it probably should be enough to avoid virtually every one that still exists in the U.S. airline industry.

There weren’t enough passengers willing to take the compensation (apparently $800 and then $1,000) that United offered to voluntarily give up seats to make room for crew members needed in the destination city?

Then offer more money.

United made $2.3 billion in profit last year. I suspect they could have come up with another $200 or $1,000 to convince David Dao or another traveler to give up a seat on that flight from Chicago to Louisville.

After this episode, I suspect airlines will be more eager to offer passengers rich compensation rather than involuntarily bumping them.

As United’s CEO said in a follow-up statement: “It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.”

Of course, the damage has been done.

“I’m mystified that it happened,” said Thomas Dickerson, a retired appellate court judge and practicing attorney in New York.

I called him because he wrote the 2,000-or-so page book Travel Law. He’s never been involuntarily bumped, he told me, but he’s written on the issue.

Missing motivation

“I think it was unnecessary,” he said of the United situation. “There probably was a sum of money that could have been offered to motivate the individual to give up his seat.”

Dickerson told me he doesn’t recall airlines ever before resorting to having law enforcement drag a passenger off a plane solely because their seat was needed by someone else.

Airlines regularly sell more seats than they can actually have, betting that some booked passengers will shift their plans. When the gamble goes bad and a flight is overbooked, passengers are entitled to compensation. (The required amount varies depending on the ticket price and the timing of the next flight.)

It’s not always a bad thing. I’ve volunteered to be bumped several times in the past. And a content strategist for travel brands wrote in Forbes about getting paid $11,000 to give up her and her family’s seats during the Delta mess.

But there have been instances of people having to get off planes when they don’t want to.

As my colleague Kelly Yamanouchi reported, U.S. airlines involuntarily bumped fliers at a rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers last year. (Delta’s rate was 0.1 per 10,000 passengers; Southwest’s was 0.99.)

That sounds like more than there should be. Let’s hope next year the rate is zero.

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