Travel agents last week said that the verdict was not yet in
on whether a series of policy changes announced by United last week would be
enough to move the airline past the now-infamous April 9 removal of passenger
David Dao from United Express Flight 3411 between Chicago O'Hare and
"If they don't change the way they do things or their
attitude toward clients, or [if they] continue to try to jam more people in
[planes] and gouge them on top of it, then no, nothing will change,"
predicted Craig Satterfield, a home-based agent with Cruise Travel Outlet in
United promised exactly such an attitude change on April 27
when, upon completing its review of the Flight 3411 incident, it unveiled eight
new policies and initiatives. United also settled with Dao that day for an
Notable among the policy changes was the immediate cessation
of involuntary removals of passengers from United flights in cases not related
to safety or security and a reduction in the use of the controversial airline
practice of overbooking.
In a statement that accompanied the release of the new
policies, CEO Oscar Munoz said, "This is a turning point for all of us at
United, and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more
United said last week that it has already reduced
overbookings on flights that have historically had low rates of passengers
volunteering to give up their seat, such as flights on small aircraft and the
last flight of the day to a specific market. Flight 3411 fell into both of
United said it typically overbooks flights by less than 3%,
and about one in 25 flights ends up with more ticketed passengers at the gate
than there are seats available. The airline did not specify how much its
reduction in overbookings would be.
Notably, it does not plan to end the practice, which
Southwest will do by July 1.
Airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt called the carrier's
continued use of overbooking "a rational business decision."
"A key reason why airlines overbook is they know not
everybody is going to show up, and they know passengers want lower fares,"
Harteveldt said. "Overbooking helps passengers get the low fares they're
intent on finding."
Another United rule that took effect last week increased the
incentives its agents can offer passengers to voluntarily give up a seat to
$10,000. On Flight 3411, agents offered an $800 voucher plus room and board for
the night, United reported. The carrier's long-standing policy has been to require
agents to get a supervisor's permission before offering more than $500.
Those changes will complement two policies United
implemented in the week after the Dao incident: Agents can no longer call on
police to remove a passenger from a plane except for safety and security
reasons, and United now requires all crew members traveling for work on a full
flight to be booked at least an hour ahead of time.
New details of Flight 3411 incident
The 11-page report on the Dao incident revealed a few new
details on what led up to his being dragged off the plane by Chicago Department
of Aviation police. One passenger, United said, was bumped off the flight
involuntarily ahead of boarding because it was overbooked.
In the meantime, a United Express flight from O'Hare to
Louisville that had been scheduled for earlier in the day was waiting out a
delay and potentially subject to cancellation due to a maintenance problem. As
a result, four crew members needed to get on Flight 3411 so that they would be
assured of being in Louisville the following morning to work a United Express
flight to Newark. The crew members were employed by Republic Airways, a
regional airline with which United contracts to operate many of its United
When no one accepted compensation of $800 to voluntarily
give up their seat, Dao and his wife were among the four passengers selected
for involuntary removal, a decision that the airline bases on passengers' fare
class, check-in time and loyalty standing, among other factors. After Dao
refused, one passenger volunteered to change flights for $1,000, but United
needed two volunteers to avoid having to remove the Daos, it said. No other
passenger would volunteer because United could not guarantee that it could get
them to Louisville that night.
The carrier also announced plans for several more steps it
will take in the future.
In June, United expects to roll out a "customer
solutions team," charged with helping gate agents identify alternative
ways for customers to get to their destination in cases in which they can't fly
on their original flight.
Such options would include the use of a nearby airport,
another airline or, when possible, ground transportation.
In July, United will launch its "In the Moment"
app, which will enable flight attendants to award frequent flyer points, flight
credits and other forms of compensation on the spot when a customer service
In August, the carrier will begin additional annual training
of frontline employees on how to handle difficult situations. At an
as-yet-undetermined time later this year, the carrier will begin asking
customers checking in at the airport or remotely how much it would take for
them to voluntarily give up their seat.
United is considering incorporating that question into
check-ins through its app, as well.
Finally, the carrier announced one pending policy change
unrelated to the Flight 3411 incident. Beginning in June, United will
automatically pay passengers $1,500 for a permanently lost bag, replacing the
current policy in which passengers must present receipts to prove the value of
the bag and its contents.
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel
in New York and chair of ASTA's Corporate Advisory Council, said United now
needs to follow through on its promises.
"I think United, as a company that serves people and
employs many people, realizes that mistakes occurred, took accountability and
is acting on it," she said. "I think it's too early to say it is
Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.