Travel

Pilots Sound Off On United's Massive Mistake

“Someone would have given up their seat for the right price.”

A simple move could have prevented the PR fiasco engulfing United Airlines after they forcibly removed a passenger from a full plane, several pilots told The Huffington Post.

In order to add four United employees to the flight from Chicago to Louisville, staff reportedly offered $400 and a hotel stay to anyone who volunteered to disembark, increasing the amount to $800 without volunteers. Finally, airline reps said they used a computer to choose passengers at random.

Dr. David Dao declined to leave the flight when selected, saying he need to be in Louisville to treat patients the next day, and was bloodied as police removed him from his seat. Airline reps should’ve simply upped the amount of the voucher until someone volunteered on their own, said pilot Karlene Petit.

“Management could have made a PA and asked, ‘Who will give up their seat for $500?... $800?... $1,000?’” said Petit, who has flown for major airlines. “Someone would have given up their seat for the right price.”

Of course, internal airline rules are strict. Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major airline, said it’s likely the crew on Sunday’s flight were told not to offer vouchers for more than $800 (federal regulations cap the amount airlines have to pay at $1,350). But had they been empowered, they could have bent their own rules to avoid what’s now a potentially multimillion dollar PR disaster.

“What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something,” Smith wrote on his blog, askthepilot.com. “Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

“Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged,” he added. “Employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention being pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all.”

The incident, captured in disturbing video, happened on a United Express flight operated by Republic Airways.

“This is a typical set-up for passenger service disaster: the situation develops quickly, after normal business hours, little upstream supervision, decision shoved down to the field level,” airline captain Chris Manno told HuffPost. The result? “...Customer service failure.”

We’d have to agree on the failure part.

United did not respond to an inquiry from HuffPost. The idea of empowering employees to handle such situations differently wasn’t mentioned in CEO Oscar Munoz’ first response to employees on Monday. Instead, he sent a controversial email that noted workers “followed established procedures” and seemed to blame Dao for “[defying] Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Munoz apologized, promising a review of the company’s policies for incentivizing volunteers.

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