Overbooking Incident: Could United Airlines Have Avoided the Fiasco?

Overbooking Incident: Could United Airlines Have Avoided the Fiasco?

If you watched the video, which went viral on social media about the United Airlines’ passenger who was brutally forced off his seat and dragged along the aisle by a police officer then you would agree that airline overbooking is dead. There are many things to be said about this outrageous and disheartening incident. You just can’t imagine any customer, let alone a paying customer be rudely treated and humiliated like that. In fact, it does appear that arguably there is no other industry on planet earth where a customer could possibly be treated in such an unacceptable manner.

Our basic understanding that anytime we board a commercial flight, we are in reality entrusting our precious lives to the care and hospitality of an airline, has been proved wrong many times over by this regrettable incident.

Following the incident, which is reported to have occurred on Sunday, April 10, 2017, aboard a flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, one cannot help but ask questions, which most probably may not have genuine answers, at least not officially.

Why was the flight overbooked?

Well, the plane was overbooked so the airline can increase the likelihood of a high load factor, just in case, a few passengers decide not to show up for the flight. After all, overbooking is a common practice within the airline industry, which is allowed by law.

Why did United need to bump four passengers off the plane before take-off?

Well, there were reportedly four crew members who needed to be positioned in Louisville for a return flight early the next day.

Why didn’t United know in advance that there are four seats which cannot or should not be sold?

Well, it is hard to answer that one. All we can say is that there was probably poor planning or poor coordination between flight operations and reservations.

Why did United allow all passengers to board the plane even though no one seemed interested in foregoing the flight in exchange for a perk of $800 and a hotel voucher?

Well, this one too is a very tough one to answer. All we can suggest is that you have gate agents who were probably tired after a long day of work and all they wanted was to handle that boarding as quickly as possible and go home. So, they probably applied risk management 101 technique: pass the buck onto flight operations and the flight crew will deal with that; problem solved.

Why did United get the police involve?

Well, according to United, the customer was delaying the flight. United had to get their passengers to their destination. In other words, this customer who appeared to be a Chinese was at fault, because he refused the bonified perks United has offered him and instead stubbornly persisted to stay on the plane. As a result, this passenger, a paying customer was viewed as a troublemaker who deserved to be removed by the police from that flight. After all, that is the procedure: you ask a passenger to deplane, he doesn’t want to cooperate (it is unlawful for him not to cooperate in such circumstances), so you call upon law enforcement agents to apply the law and get him off the plane. Problem solved, the plane can now leave the gate.

Lessons Learned

This is a case where logic alone and applying procedures by the book cannot yield a good, reasonable and acceptable outcome. Some level of emotional intelligence has to be applied because man has not been made for procedures. It is rather procedures, which have been made for men. Thus, common sense has to be the eternal guiding principle when dealing with people in general and customers in particular.


All told, this incident is utterly disheartening, especially knowing that Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines has been working diligently (even at the risk of his own life) since his first day in office to inject some good spirit into the airline, which not too long ago had lost the confidence of both its employees and customers.

Thanks to social media, the fine reputation that Mr. Munoz has been trying hard at conveying about United Airlines is now deeply and widely damaged. The prospect of regaining the trust of customers in United’s ability to truly care about them seems now too far-fetched.

As for the airline industry, this incident comes as yet another evidence why at Airline Profits we are of the opinion that selling seats is not a viable option for airlines and that the time is right for rethinking the airline business along with its supporting technology.

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Copyright 2017 Airline Profits
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Kofi Sonokpon

Kofi Sonokpon

Managing Editor of Airline Profits, the first aviation magazine devoted to improving airline effectiveness and profitability, Kofi Sonokpon has more than 20 years of international experience in aviation. Kofi holds an IATA sponsored Master of Business Administration (MBA) in Air Transport Management from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal. Kofi Sonokpon is a speaker, an airline business thought-leader, and author an innovative book series intended for the 21st century airline, namely Airlines for Business and Airlines for Technology.