United Airlines Ups Compensation For Bumped Passengers To $10K

Image courtesy of Audra Bridges

Over the past several weeks, United Airlines has taken steps to put an April 9 incident in which a passenger was violently removed from a flight behind it: revising crew travel policies, discontinuing the use of law enforcement to remove passengerscompensating passengers on the controversial flight, and, of course, issuing several apologies. Now the airline is revamping how it compensates passengers being bumped from flights and answering lingering questions from lawmakers. 

United Airlines unveiled today a number of “substantial” changes to the way it “flies, serves, and respects its customers,” including increasing passenger compensation incentives for voluntarily denied boarding.

Now, when the airline asks passengers to give up their seats before boarding, they can offer up to $10,000 in compensation for the seat.

The carrier said this change, and others, came about as a direct result of the airline’s “thorough examination of its polices and procedures, and commitment to take action, in the wake of the forced removal of a customer” on the fateful United Express flight 3411.

United says that several of the policy changes have already taken effect, while others will roll out through the rest of 2017. The full list includes:
• Limit its use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only
• Not require customers seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk
• Provide employees with additional annual training
• Reduce the amount of overbooking
• 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
• Ensure crews are booked onto a flight at least 60 minutes prior to departure
• Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans
• Empower employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment
• Eliminate the red tape on permanently lost bags by adopting a “no questions asked” policy on lost luggage

A lawyer for Dr. David Dao, the passenger removed from the flight, said in a statement today that he and his client applaud the airline’s policy changes.

“All of its policy changes announced today are passenger friendly and are simple, commonsense decisions on United’s part to help minimize the stress involved in the flying experience,” Thomas Demetrio said in a statement.

How Did We Get Here?

Today’s announced policy changes came just hours after United told members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security that it was working on such policy changes.

United’s 18-page [PDF] response to questions from Senators John Thune (SD), Bill Nelson (FL), Roy Blunt (MO), and Rep. Maria Cantwell (WA) explains how the airline handled the situation, why it came to the determination to remove the passenger in the first place, and steps it is taking to ensure similar situations don’t occur in the future.

“I continue to extend my profound apologies to Dr. David Dao, all the passengers aboard the flight, as well as you and your constituents for not living up to the values you expected of United,” CEO Oscar Munoz said in the letter.

According to United, the flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to Louisville was oversold by one passenger prior to boarding.

“Despite repeated solicitations for passengers to accept voluntary denied boarding none were found,” the letter stated. “United followed company boarding rules and Department of Transportation requirements, identifying one passenger who was involuntarily denied boarding prior to boarding.”

However, the carrier notes that issues began around the time of boarding when four Republic Airlines crew members arrived at the gate for the flight, needing to travel in order to operate a flight the next day.

While the crew members were originally booked on another flight to Louisville, that plane was experiencing an extended mechanical delay that made it seem as if the crew would not make it to their destination in time to receive mandated rest. If this were the case, the crew would not be able to operate the scheduled flight the next day.

“Given the difficulties in obtaining replacement crews on short notice,” the crew was booked as “must ride” on Flight 3411.

In order to accommodate the crew, United gate agents again solicited passengers, who were already on board the flight, to volunteer to give up their seats, offering $1,000 in travel vouchers

“United did not get all the volunteers necessary,” the letter states. “Given its unsuccessful efforts to solicit volunteers, United then followed its involuntary denied boarding process.”

United claims that agents then approached passengers individually who were chosen for involuntary denied boarding to explain the situation. The passengers were chosen based on their domestic flight itineraries and fare class, the airline explains.

The first two passengers approached left the plane with compensation, refunded tickets, and a DOT-required notice. The next passengers were the Daos, who refused to leave.

As for exploring other options to accommodate both passengers and the Republic crew, United claims there were few viable alternatives.

Driving from Chicago to Louisville — a 300-mile journey — was not feasible, according to the airline, as it would have ensured a “severe delay or possible cancelation” of their flight the following morning.

“Flight 3411 was the last on-line opportunity to transport the Republic Crew to [Louisville] to prevent the likely cancellation of the right the next day,” the airline claims, noting that canceling that flight would have caused major disruptions to airline service.

When it comes to the airline’s use of law enforcement personnel to remove passengers, United says it does not keep statistics on such measures when it comes to involuntary denied boarding. However, the company says that in 2016 it had a total of 3,765 involuntarily ended boardings out of more than 86.8 million passengers.

“United has committed to immediate changes,” the company said in the letter, just hours before revealing those changes, mentioned above.

The Chicago Department of Aviation also provided answers to the Committee’s questions related to the agency’s involvement in the Flight 3411 situation. The Department of Aviation notes that its investigation into the issues is ongoing.