What happened last Sunday at O’Hare International Airport on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville will tarnish all the goodwill that United has earned with their new CEO, Oscar Munoz, over the past year.
A male passenger was ordered to give up his seat because it was oversold and the airline gate crew could not get anyone to volunteer to give up their seats. United needed four unoccupied seats for flight crew who were enroute to their next shift. Overbooking on airlines happens more often than you may be aware of -- during holidays seasons like Passover and Easter it’s even more common.
Computer models are designed to calculate how many booked passengers will be no-shows due to illness or other reasons and overbook flights in an attempt to maximize their revenue. Reservation systems utilize these programs and permit overbooking of planes even when the seat map shows no seats available.
Sadly the algorithms employed by most airlines have a high level of error evidenced by the quite common request from airlines seeking volunteers to give up their seats. Airlines lose millions of dollars due to overbooking and the costs incurred in compensating passengers.
United Airlines started its plea to get passengers off the flight with a $400 offer, then raised it to $800 plus an overnight stay in a hotel as the next United flight was not for another 24 hours.
Still no takers. No doubt the flight staff was a bit surprised that on an 80-minute flight, nobody jumped at the offer. In fact, it’s curious why none of the nearly eighty passengers weren’t interested.
I’m guessing that the communication of their quite generous offer didn’t so much fall on deaf ears but that very few passengers heard it before they boarded the aircraft. Why they didn’t go higher or offer to move passengers to another airlines' flight will be investigated in depth at their headquarters.
From top to bottom it was an exercise in futility that was implemented poorly. That their procedures allowed it to transpire and that the initial statements from United were so tepid will harm the airline's reputation far more than the short term financial loss in their stock.
An internal memo to employees, commending the flight crew for following proper procedures, only deepened the crisis. Only after 48 hours, did Oscar Munoz call the incident “truly horrific,’ apologized to the passenger and promised a full review of United’s procedures for handling customers on oversold flights.
If you’re ever on an overbooked flight in which volunteers are needed, be prepared to negotiate. And to negotiate hard. Make sure you’re getting hard cash, not some credit toward a future flight. This is imperative unless you know you’ll be flying that same airline in the future.
If the offer is a voucher, make sure that it’s transferable to anyone. Guarantee that you have a seat, with boarding passes on the new flight. If you need vouchers for food and drink or a hotel voucher, double check that it’s included in your deal.
Never change your plans until the plane leaves without you. Don’t leave the airline counter until you’ve checked and rechecked that you have all the documentation necessary for your new trip.
Overbooking happens, passengers will get bumped. Your role is to be prepared ahead of time so you can react accordingly and, while helping out the airline, get the full compensation you deserve. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]