United Releases Its 10-Point Plan to Avoid Roughing Up Passengers


Soon after Dr David Dao was dragged off United Express flight 3411, the airline said it would be doing a full review of its policies and procedures and release a plan of action by April 30. Apparently nobody checked to see that April 30 was a Sunday this year, so it’s out early and in time for the news cycle to catch it.

It’s a 10-point plan, though not all seem to be related to this one incident. Some are entirely expected, but some are surprising in that I can’t believe they haven’t been done already. Shall we go through each point? Sure, why not…

Limit use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.
Verdict: Good plan, as long as not everything becomes a safety/security issue
We already knew this one was coming from what CEO Oscar Munoz had said previously. This seems like an obvious thing, but, well, apparently it wasn’t. Now the key is making sure United doesn’t stretch the definition of safety/security or this could end poorly.

Not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.
Verdict: I like it
We also knew this one was coming from previous comments, and I like the plan. It’s incredibly rare for an airline to have to pull a passenger off the airplane today unless it’s a safety/security reason. (Remember, safety would include things like the airline needing to take people off due to a last minute weight restriction.) Since it’s already rare, it makes sense to clearly explain that it will never happen. How do you avoid it from ever happening? Well, you move on to the next point…

Increase customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.
Verdict: I wouldn’t have given a number, but the sentiment is right
If you need to get someone off the airplane and you don’t want to remove that person involuntarily, then it stands to reason you need to pay more to get volunteers. Delta has already done this. It didn’t publicly announce the figures, but word got out anyway. I don’t know why United felt the need to put the $10,000 figure out there, but it did. United tells me that it hasn’t been determined if any agent can go to $10,000 or if a supervisor is required, but the point is that the airline can go a lot higher than the measly $800 it offered Dr Dao.

Establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions such as using nearby airports, other airlines or ground transportations to get customers to their final destination.
Verdict: How the heck does this not already exist?
This one shocked me. I know that Delta and American both have teams that work on finding reaccommodation options for travelers in a variety of situations. I thought United had one too, but if it does, it apparently never worked on overbooking situations. That’s crazy, and this is long overdue. I mean, we even had a team doing this at little America West when I worked there 15 years ago.

Ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure.
Verdict: I’m conflicted
I didn’t like this when I first heard it, because you can imagine plenty of situations where you would want to get a crew on the airplane even if it’s under an hour before departure. I felt better once I read the fine print that this rule will only apply if there are no empty seats, so it’s solely meant to avoid denying boarding to paying passengers. But still, think about a situation where the option is to cancel a downline flight and inconvenience 100 people or get some highly-paid volunteers to get off a flight so the crew can get where they need to go. I wouldn’t want this happening often, but it seems like there should be times you’d want more flexibility.

Provide employees with additional annual training.
Verdict: Always a good plan… if it doesn’t suck
It sounds corporate-y and terrible when United says it will provide training to front line employees “to enhance their skills on an ongoing basis that will equip them to handle the most difficult of situations.” But if it really does that, then good.

Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans.
Verdict: Again, how is this not already a thing?
Delta has done this for some time, and it works very well. When people check in, the airline offers the opportunity to volunteer. Everyone is happy. Unfortunately this won’t roll out until “later this year.”

Reduce the amount of overbooking.
Verdict: I don’t get it
I can’t say I get why this is part of this plan since overbooking wasn’t the issue with Dr Dao anyway. That being said, it would be a logical reaction that when the cost of denying boarding goes up (in the form of higher payouts being offered) then you would expect to tweak the models to be more conservative in overbooking. But just because the airline is authorizing its people to go higher doesn’t mean that the costs will really go up. I would think if I were United, I’d wait and adjust the models if I saw costs going up. This seems like an overreaction to me, especially since a higher payout means volunteer rates will go up. This seems premature.

Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.
Verdict: Yes
There is nothing more annoying than having to write in to customer relations (and only when you’ve completed your entire journey) to get compensation for a mess you encountered along the way. Starting in July for flight attendants and by year-end for gate agents, they’ll be empowered to provide compensation right on the spot with a new app. Nice.

Eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a “no questions asked” policy on lost luggage.
Verdict: Seems like a good thing even though it’s unrelated.
Ok, clearly we’re getting off topic here since this has nothing to do with Dr Dao, but now if United loses your bag permanently (as in, you never see it again unless you happen to find it in Scottsboro, Alabama), then you get $1,500 with no questions asked. If you had higher value stuff in there, well, you’ll have to prove it.

These mostly seem like decent proposals, but I’m curious how you all take it. Does it seem authentic? Has United really taken this situation to heart?

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54 comments on “United Releases Its 10-Point Plan to Avoid Roughing Up Passengers

  1. “Apparently nobody checked to see that April 30 was a Sunday this year….”

    I believe Munoz said he will report by end of the month – so, what’s with your comment?

    Some points, it seems, are customer friendly. However, fact remain, United, and other carriers too, can still bump for deadheading crew(s), they just won’t do it 60 min prior to departure.

    1. I’ve seen thumbs down on your comment so I guess we have readers from labor here.

      Second, imo “United, and other carriers too, can still bump for deadheading crew(s)…” part of it may make sense but with the way airlines seem to be control freaks the perception and application may be poor.

  2. United has created a lot of things that should have been done anyway but others such as reducing overbooking on the last flight of the day will cost United money. the problem on the Dr. Dao flight wasn’t overbooking and they addressed the issues that caused those problems – walk up deadhead crew and pulling passengers off of boarded flights.
    Because United doesn’t have automated denied boarding solicitation tools (so far as I know only Delta does), United will likely end up spending a whole lot more on denied boarding because customers can bid up the price United has to pay in full view of other passengers. Trying to match a competitor’s denied boarding values becomes a liability without the tools they have.

    United did a few things that they needed to do but is adding a lot of unnecessary cost because of a mishandling that had as much to do with common sense and judgment than procedures or policies.

    1. I agree that technical it wasn’t overbooking; however, the end result was the same, bumping and in the case of Dr. Dao dragging.

  3. I don’t understand your insistence that the United situation “wasn’t overbooking”. Yes, the passengers were bumped for crew needed for operational reasons instead of paying passengers, but the end effect is indistinguishable from an overbook. Continuing to insist otherwise just looks like a nit-picky semantic argument.

    And if United had done less over-booking, it’s possible that there would have been some empty seats on the fateful flight, so it’s certainly not unrelated.

    1. I totally agree. United could have issued full fare last minutes tickets to these crew members, even though the flight was overbooked. They would not have cost united anything, because they would have been paying themselves.

    2. the difference is that it overbooking is intentional, crew ops reasons are unplanned. You can get mad at overbooking becuase the problem is intentional. Crew ops issues like this dont have an easy fix unless you are willing to have empty seats on most flights as a “just in case” for a rare instance.

      The passenger impact is the same, but the causes are different and should be investigated differently with different solutions

      1. thank you, Noah.
        So far as we can tell from public information, this flight had sold 50 revenue tickets for 50 seats and things went bad only when the crew bookings came into play. You can define when a flight is overbooked but many airlines do not allow seats above the capacity of the aircraft to be sold once the flight is in control of the gate agent. We don’t know if the flight was overbooked at the time boarding started but it certainly was boarded before the crew members showed up at the gate. Very few airlines including UAL will start boarding when there is a known, unresolved overbooking situation. Given that one of United’s 10 points is to ensure that crews are booked 60 minutes before a flight, I suspect the crew was not booked at the time boarding commenced.
        Part of the public anger about the situation is related to UAL’s mishandling passenger removal in order to put their own crew onboard (and the public really doesn’t know or care whether it was United Airlines or one of their Express carriers’ crews).
        The public also doesn’t care whether a downline flight is cancelled or delayed because a crew suddenly needs to be accommodated.
        Once passengers are on board, the only reasons that passengers should be removed is due to things like operational (weight issues). Trading passengers – regardless of who they are and the reason for the trade – is no longer an issue once the flight is boarded.

      2. Crew ops problems should never affect a paying customer with a confirmed seat.
        Figure out something else, airlines; it’s your problem, not the passengers’.

        1. Robert – Well, if you don’t get that crew to Louisville, then it absolutely affects dozens of paying customers.

          1. But those pax in Louisville will never know what happened; they will just be told their flight is canceled for lack of crew and they’ll be reaccommodated three days later when there is a free seat.

      3. Clearly by the number of down votes, other commenters do not agree with me. What they disagree with, I’m uncertain. To me, it makes sense to overbook: for revenue pasengers, crew, or whatever. Also, an airlines should never be in a situation where they can’t financially entice enough volunteers. If you have a flight with 50 people on it, you should always be able to have enough volunteers, without having to pay them an amount that will have a material effect on an airlines quarterly statement.

    3. SirWired – So by that logic, if winds increased or temperatures changed and they had to take a weight restriction, then you’d consider that overbooking as well. The only way to account for potential operational needs is to leave a bunch of seats open, and that’s a terrible idea unless you like higher fares.

      The point I continue to make is that this incident shouldn’t change the number of seats the airline decides to sell, because there’s no way it could have known in advance if there would be an operational need or not. You can’t just leave seats open every time just in case another airplane breaks down.

      1. CF – I agree that it shouldn’t change the # of seats the airlines decides to sell. The effect, though not technically an oversell, may result in the effect of “overbooking”. And that is something the airline can and has decided to affect with the changes announced.

        btw, just saw United settled with Mr. Dao.

      2. Cranky, seems to me general public is unaware people are rebooked to other flights all the time; when weather, freight, fuel, etc necessitate certain number of empty seats.

    4. I agree that the “end effect is indistinguishable from an overbook”. Incidentally, I think that this is one reason imo CF came out looking as someone on the side of the airlines. imo, in making his case for the technicality he failed to see the undistinguishability.

  4. Whilst I agree that publishing the $10k figure is only likely to drive rampant profiteering from volunteers, I suspect their hand was forced by the leak of Delta’s offer. As regards to the ‘customer solutions’ suggestion….well, surely that’s what Cranky Concierge is there for; maybe you could franchise it out to United, Brett…

    And as for the online volunteering……I’ve frequently been prompted at United Check-In counters to consider volunteering to be bumped, so are they migrating this to the website as well??

    All this and no mention of giant rabbits.

    1. Bobber – Looks like it’ll be in the app and at the airport, according to the documentation. No clue what’s going to be different if they’re already doing this in limited form.

      1. Maybe you can submit a binding bid. The problem for me at least is that the $$$ amount is just one factor in deciding whether to accept a bump. The perhaps equally important one is what alternative travel options are offered.

        Perhaps they are going to invest into creating software that works out guaranteed alternative routings/bookings and offers them to booked passengers. Imagine you sit at the gate and a message from the app arrives that offers you -a $500 voucher and a guaranteed rebooking on flight XYZ. With those details known, you have two minutes to make a decision before the next person receives an offer. The computer could work out a priority list based on cost to UA or likelihood of customers accepting the offer based on historic data.

  5. I am interested in the automated system to solicit volunteers… for a while now (at least a few years) the UA kiosks have asked if I am willing to take a different flight for $XX when I check-in. I don’t fly Delta often, but the system you describe sounds similar. While I know UA’s isn’t as comprehensive as the bidding system I have heard about at DL, there is at least some sort of system that is already in place, so this would have to be a bigger change to the automation than simply asking for volunteers at the time of check-in.

      1. Actually, that is Mel Brooks as Moses and his 15 commandments (“History of the World – Part I”). One of the tablets broke. You can see the remnants by his feet. That is why we now have only ten commandments.

    1. It’s from Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 where Moses comes down with 15 commandments and accidently drops one, so he proclaims that God has given him 10 commandments instead.

      1. thanks. I initially thought it was a pic of golf clubs but that did not make sense.

        the broken tablet looks like an evil skull.

  6. The compensation increase would be meaningfull if it is paid in cash in lieu of travel vouchers. Do we know how it is being paid?

  7. American still does everything the old fashioned way, I.e. ask for volunteers at the gate and issue paper vouchers that can’t be used online. I got one a few days back, to redeem it, I had to put a hold on a ticket, call and then mail in the voucher. Supposedly, you won’t get charged to use it at the ticket counter, but I didn’t test that. Then I got another paper voucher sent back to me with my leftover amount on it.

  8. I doubt that this set of ” new” rules will change much. The agents at the podium are so understaffed and they don’t have time to take care of things prior to boarding such as huge carry on bags and strollers. Authority has been taken away from the Captain while the plane is at the gate so he can’t control what is going on in his aircraft —it just goes on and on. I used to work for UAL and it sure isn’t the good old days any longer.

  9. “….. using nearby airports other airlines or ground transportation to get customers to their final destination.”

    I guess they are calling this rule the ‘ way we used to treat customer’s’ rule.

  10. You didn’t mention an important aspect of the reduced overbooking: it’s on flights with historically low volunteerism rates, such as last flights of the night. Now that buying volunteers can get much more expensive, and these flights are likely to be the most expensive, it may be cost wise to limit overbooking on them.

    It boggles me that airlines don’t have automated rebooking for delayed, cancelled, or oversold flights, but instead leave it to their frontline employees to handle the masses. They also need to have automated solicitation of bids for being bumped, auction style.

    1. Eric C – But presumably their models should already be taking into account that these flights have lower volunteer rates. If they aren’t doing that, then shame on them.

      1. Exactly.

        One would think that the airlines would leave a bit more slack (overbooking less, not overbooking, or even leaving a seat or two open) on the “last flight of the day” for routes with more than, say, 5 daily flights. Those late flights often generate less revenue per seat anyway, and the slack in them can be used to recover from irrops or overbooking earlier in the day.

  11. Why say they’re reducing overbooking? Seems like this is to head off any potential legislation against the practice.

    It’s also something they can promise that no one will be able to easily verify. Makes sense to say the popular thing now.

    I appreciate CF’s defense of overbooking, but if Congress gets involved they’ll demand red meat. A rational defense of the practice won’t do it. This helps defuse the situation a bit and may help stave off a bigger regulatory/legislative change.

  12. Is there a time limit on pre-volunteering? When checking in at the comfort of my hotel I may agree to take a later flight for $200. Once I’m past security and at the gate, it may take $500. And if I’m already sitting on the plane, perhaps I won’t agree to get off for less than $1500. So when United or Delta ask you about volunteering at check-in, for how long do they retain the right to take you up on that offer?

    1. United’s question today at checkin doesn’t require a binding answer. They are just assembling a list of hypothetical volunteers. Without knowing what alternative transportation I will get I would never volunteer.

  13. United used to handle things fine until their pre-merger employees were forced onto the CO Shares computer……a totally useless, antiquated piece of crap, ergo, they inherited the Can’tinental NO mentality. You’re only as good as the tools you have. From what I’ve heard the gate agent couldn’t get past/offer more than $800 in the Dao incident because the computer’s maximum is at that point. No thinking out of the box with Continental.

    1. Sigh. That old argument again.

      I never heard a PMUA agent offer more than $800. Usually $400 or free trip voucher. Do you know for sure they had no limit?

      (I am a PMUA MM)

      1. I didn’t say “no limit”, and yes, I know for sure UA agents could go past $800. Even you believe the argument is “old”, ask any agent the next time you fly United if SHARES versus FASTAIR is the better deal and ask them if it gives them the capability they had with FASTAIR.

  14. If you’ve been around the UA folks (nice people, of course) long enough, you know that everything fits into their “blame game” mantra: Never had problems with anything before CO came along! And then the instant O’Hare/Republic instant case, as the UA pilots said: please know, none of these pilots, upfront or those getting onboard were UA’s, and by inference, not the cabin crew or the dispatchers, either. We’ll just blame the O’Hare cops for now but the “Commitment To Excellent” re: UA vs. its “operated bys is an issue that the industry brought on itself and customers are stuck with it. Contract of Carriage, you know! Yes, the Colgan-Buffalo case did get messy, but has anything changed?

  15. The whole list is put in perspective by the undisclosed settlement United just made with Dr. Dao including accepting full responsibility for the incident according to Dr. Dao’s lawyers.

      1. this is what Reuters said
        “United has taken “full responsibility for what happened on Flight 3411, without attempting to blame others, including the City of Chicago,” Thomas Demetrio, an attorney for Dao, said in a statement.
        “Demetrio said there was no need to proceed with separate litigation against the city. Republic Airways, United’s regional partner which operated the flight that Dao was on, has also been released from responsibility as part of the settlement, Demetrio’s office said.
        Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office declined to comment on the settlement.
        The three Chicago Department of Aviation officers who pulled Dao off the plane and a supervisor involved in the incident remain on paid leave, said Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Karen Pride, who declined to comment on the settlement.”

  16. Recently due to ill health for one of my party, we wanted to cancel our flight reservations understanding the penalties. We had booked it with an online agency. They refused to cancel the reservation without us paying to do so. I explained to them that we understood the policy but wanted to open our seats up for anyone else. Again they refused unless we pay. I had to call a friend who is the regional manager for the airline. The industry does not want to help themselves.

  17. “Establish a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions such as using nearby airports, other airlines or ground transportations to get customers to their final destination.”

    Presumably these options are available to unexpected crew movements as well?

  18. All I can say… good…. luck.

    I say this as someone who wants UA to excel and flourish.

    I don’t see this making much of a change as a large part of customer-facing UA is outsourced.

    Cheap. That’s the name of the game and it cuts on both ends. Employees will not be empowered by the contractor because they are afraid of UA charging compensation back to them. The employees can’t point to UA and say “BUT THEY SAID” when their employer tells them specifically NOT TO. So, that removes the “Resolve on the spot” and “$10K” fixes.

    Re: the customer solutions team.

    When the “team” at the gate is “You, Yourself, and I”… there won’t be any time to engage the customer service team when you are a T-29 and you find you are over by 2. When are you going to call them? When you’re driving the bridge to meet the plane? Walking down the bridge with your personal cell phone in hand? They schedule the turns so stupidly tight there is really no room for extra steps.

    “But! Staffing is the contractor’s issue!” you cry. Cheap. I bet if the contract language read “Two agents” and paid for two agents… there should be two agents. However, ground handling has always been the lowest bidder game and they are always trying to cut more.

    UA can’t staff the AO Helpdesk properly during major IRROPS… do you think they will staff the resolution team any better? There were multiple times we fixed the tkt as much as we could… had the customer go to a waiting area and we’ll come to them as soon as we got it fixed, and dedicated one agent in the back room to sit on hold for 30-45min at a time and kept piling up PNRs for them to fix as soon as they got someone with a pulse on the phone.

    One thing I will say about the ticketing desk is that UAs helpdesk did not use the word “I won’t do that” nearly as often as DLs did.

    Annual training…. will be in the form of an online course where nobody really pays attention because they have to get thru it because their supervisor told them to.

    I want to believe these changes will be for all facets of the UA front line, not just mainline and UGExpress employees. I… just…. don’t see it.

  19. My impression of United’s pledge to reduce overbooking was that it was in response to Southwest’s announcement of the same. Wasn’t a big deal for Southwest, as they barely overbook anyway, but I think it’s a much bigger deal for United. And, as others have pointed out, the general public didn’t understand that this wasn’t a case of overbooking, so it’s what they were demanding. This was definitely a terrible incident, but it really rankles me that the ignorant public can call for (and get) changes they don’t remotely understand.

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