Customer Service

Congress Probes United Airlines’ Customer Mishandling

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz on Tuesday apologized to the United States Congress for his company causing a passenger to be dragged off a UA flight last month.

United failed its customers and failed as a company in that incident, and this has to be a turning point for the airline, Munoz told the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation Committee at a hearing into airline industry practices.

United should not have called on law enforcement to drag the passenger, David Dao, off the plane, Munoz told the committee. It also should not have rebooked crew at the very last minute, which led to its requesting passengers to deplane voluntarily and switch flights. When none did so, Dao was selected at random to give up his seat.

Dao informed the crew that he was a doctor who needed to see patients, and refused to comply. Law enforcement officers then dragged him off the plane by force, bloodying his face in the process.

United should have offered more compensation to persuade passengers to give up their seats, Munoz said, acknowledging that the company’s protocols detracted from customer service.

Committee chairman Bill Shuster warned the industry that the committee will take action if it does not see meaningful results that improve customer service, and that companies would not like the outcome.

Committee members discussed the level of competition in the industry.

They said they were looking into what Congress could do to get airlines to address customer service issues better, and warned they would hold airline executives accountable.

In addition to Munoz, United Airlines President Scott Kirby and senior executives from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines attended the hearing. William McGee, aviation consultant with the Consumers Union, also appeared.

Room for Improvement

United’s apology to Dao and its settlement of his threatened lawsuit out of court “is probably enough” to put this particular incident to rest, suggested Wayne Plucker, director of aerospace and defense research at Frost & Sullivan.

However, “overall, there’s still much to be done,” he told CRM Buyer.

Most seats are filled on flights, making passengers irritable, Plucker said, so any additional inconveniences can spark overreactions.

Both ground and air crews “have little guidance and even less experience with handling these situations,” he said.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA submitted written testimony to the hearing, noting that crew are overworked, flights are understaffed, and the airlines have reduced seat size and increased the number of seats in the cabins.

Further, respect for authority, as well as decency and decorum, are lacking, the letter states, which can lead to dangerous working conditions for flight attendants, whose work increasingly includes de-escalating conflicts.

The Overbooking Problem

Southwest pledged to end overbooking altogether. However, Munoz defended the practice, saying it leads to better service, and American Airlines said it would not stop overbooking either.

“We recommend the airlines not sell more confirmed reservations than they have seats, and if they want to overbook in anticipation of no-shows, let people know they’re buying standby tickets,” said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers.

The situation with Dao arose because United wanted to fly crew members for another flight to their destination. Airlines should reserve a row of seats for employee use on all flights, and sell them only with the understanding that the passengers who buy them may have to relinquish their seats if needed, he recommended.

“That way, no one needs to be ‘volunteered’ the way Dr. Dao was,” Kidd told CRM Buyer.

Better training would have helped avoid the situation with Dao, he said.

The Pain Felt by Passengers

“Pasenger abuse is a growing problem, but there are many other problems with air travel in general,” said Paul Hudson, president of has had a proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights 2.0 on its Website since 2012, with 30 proposals, but “none have been enacted, and no member of Congress is even willing to introduce them,” he told CRM Buyer.

The congressional investigation will put United Airlines on the rack, and the industry as a whole “could see changes to the passenger’s bill of rights, which is certain to cost it money and flexibility,” suggested Frost’s Plucker.

However, “the legislative process is slow, cumbersome and unwieldy, and Congress already has a lot on its plate,” Kidd observed. “I do not expect much to change any time soon.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.

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