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 Louisville, Ky.

"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 Salem, N.H.

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 undisclosed amount.

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 customer-focused airline."

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 those categories.

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 Express flights.

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 issue arises.

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 enough."
___

Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI