United Says Controversial Flight Wasn’t Overbooked; Airline Crew Just Needed The Seats More

Image courtesy of Audra Bridges

United Airlines is still in damage-control mode today in response to the public uproar over a passenger who was forcibly removed from a flight earlier this week. Now the carrier is clarifying that this flight wasn’t “overbooked;” it just really needed the seats for United crew members.

In a statement to USA Today, an airline spokesperson says that United did not oversell the flight from Chicago to Louisville. Rather, the flight was sold out when United decided it needed to use four seats to transport United crew members to Louisville in advance of a flight the next day.

As such, these passengers were considered “must-ride” by the airline, meaning they would take the place of four United customers.

What that statement from United doesn’t address is that United flies four non-stops each Sunday from its Chicago hub to Louisville, and that there was was still one flight scheduled a few hours later. We’ve asked the airline why crew members were given must-ride status on this particular flight, and we’ll update if we hear a response.

Whether United’s clarification makes things look better for the airline is arguable. Yes, United has an answer for those who blamed it for allegedly overbooking the flight. At the same time, the airline failed to foresee that it would need four seats for crew members, and insisted on picking a random passenger to remove from the flight rather than increasing its compensation offer to entice a fourth volunteer to give up their seat.

The response of United CEO Oscar Munoz has also not helped. First, he referred to what happened as “re-accommodating” the passenger, resulting in instant social media backlash.

Then, in an email to United staff, Munoz described the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent,” despite accounts from witnesses on the plane who said the man was neither of those things until security officers attempted to forcibly remove him from his seat.

UPDATE: In yet another statement, Munoz is more contrite, saying “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated that way.”

The CEO now says there will be a thorough review of crew movement, and of the airline’s policies for offering incentives for passengers to voluntarily give up their seats.

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