United Airlines Gets it Wrong – Even When it Gets it Right

A regional jet flight operated under a
United flight number between Burlington and Washington found itself to
be overloaded, and needed to unload 20 passengers (that's a really
strange amount of overloading on a regional jet that only carries about
70 passengers).

So United found itself faced with the issue
of who to offload and who to leave on the plane.  An attempt to
call for volunteers did not get enough people agreeing to be bumped. 
So the airline, which could of course choose any of various different
selection criteria, decided to offload people based on criteria it then
publically announced – people who paid the lowest fare would be
offloaded first, people who paid the highest fares would get to stay on
the flight.

While it is unfortunate that anyone had to
be denied travel, was this not the fairest and most commercially prudent
way to choose who flies and who remains?  And wasn't it a fair and
transparent process to tell everyone who was being selected and why?

One of the passengers started complaining
about this on Twitter
.  So what did United do?  Did it simply
respond that any method of selection was going to result in 20 unhappy
passengers, and this was what they believed to be fairest?  Oh no. 
They apologized and tweeted back 'this shouldn't have happened'.

Question to United Airlines :  How will
you select passengers next time?  Alphabetically?  By weight? 
By gender?  By age?  By coin toss?

Lastly, what do you think to be the fairest
method of denying boarding to passengers who are already
booked/confirmed on a flight?

10 thoughts on “United Airlines Gets it Wrong – Even When it Gets it Right”

  1. I’m confused and a bit worried that lots of bloggers and news media are talking about this without reading the whole story, which is contradictory. (Tracing the reference links back ends up with http://www.jaunted.com/story/2010/7/13/12710/3098/travel/United+Flight+Kicks+Off+Passengers+Who+Paid+Least+for+Tickets)
    In that story, the first tweet says they are going to remove people based on fare, but then quotes “[Gate agent] said if we don’t get two more [volunteers to get off the flight]… I am going to get a list of the last people that checked in! All passengers sitting nervously!”
    Last people checked in is not the same as fare category.
    Last people checked in was the criteria used on a recent flight from DEN to SAT I was on where a 66 seat regional jet needed 15 people off due to the need to carry a lot of extra fuel just in case the remnants of the hurricane in the gulf caused diversion, possibly all the way back to DEN.
    While I can’t understand how they didn’t know they had a weight problem before boarding 10 minutes earlier, the criteria used seemed as good as any.
    I volunteered and got $400 in travel vouchers plus dinner to take a flight 5 hours later. Even those involuntarily denied boarding got compensated. Anyone held up overnight was given hotel and meals.
    The bottom line is the “media” needs to find out what really happened before spreading it as factual. I would love to hear United’s (technically United Express’s) version of this story.

  2. As a consumer I still have a hard time believing this happens as often as it does. If I fork out several hundred dollars I am not going to just ‘not show up’. I guess there is always the chance of an emergency which could result in a no-show but this is certainly not guaranteed. Yet (most) airlines count on this happening so they consistently overbook.
    I think the problem could easily be solved by not overbooking in the first place. I just look at Westjet, who does NOT overbook. They consistently get good customer satisfaction ratings. Perhaps the ‘big boys’ could learn a thing or two from the little guys.

  3. In theory, at least, the best way to deny boarding involuntarily, is by the price paid for the ticket.
    But that is almost impossible to determine. Most of the passengers, and quite often all of the passengers on a UX flight, are connecting to or from a mainline flight, or an International flight, and the connection may or may not be on UA.
    How do you take the ticket price, and allocate it to this sector? On miles? Or on relative values? Or is the total ticket price the factor?
    When I fly UX, it is usually a free segment included on a First Class RTW for which I will have paid over $12,000. So, I would, by all reasonable criteria, be immune from denied boarding. Except that I will be on an involuntary downgrade from F to C to Y, and the amount of the fare that is allocated by the issuing airline (Singapore?) to this sector is next to nothing, as UA gets paid only for Y Class travel even though I have paid the F Class fare. So, even I am at risk.
    There is a way they are supposed to use (remember Way Back When?) and that is to determine the Date Of Issue of the Ticket. But they may or may not have that data. That would work for me, as I buy my tickets 12-20 months in advance (as long as I fly the first sector within 365 days of issue, the ticket is valid for 366 days after the first flight).
    There is no easy way. But ticket issue date is a useful criterion.

  4. Earl commented that they could have solved the problem by not overbooking, and that may well be true.
    But it is not always true. The weight and balance problem of a particular flight can be caused by weather issues, so not overbooking doesn’t always solve it.
    This is slightly off the issue, but some LCCs, like Ryanair, don’t overbook at all, as ALL their tickets are non-refundable, so they just don’t need to over-book. But Legacy carriers must over-book, because there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for missing a flight (a late connecting flight), and if they don’t overbook they will lose a lot of revenue, and a lot of seats will go out empty.

  5. David poses an interesting question: What indeed would be the fairest method for eliminating passengers from the plane? I suspect a philosophy class could debate this for a long time.
    The method used was based on the concept that a higher paying passenger has some implicit “rights” that make him or her more “important” than a lower paying passenger. While the airline undoubtedly sees it that way, the vision is shortsighted to say the least. What if I am a frequent flyer who rides the airline all the time and am using a reward seat, or a blended fare seat using miles and dollars? Aren’t I a more “valuable asset” than Joe Schmo who got a deeply discounted fare and tried this airline for the first time?
    But more importantly, why do dollars spent equate to rights? If the plane runs short of meals, are they to be rationed in the same way? What if passenger “A” is flying to a funeral and passenger “B” is on a long awaited vacation? The debate is endless, and the only fair way is by lottery.
    That said, the right thing to do would have been to keep upping the ante on the dollar offer until there were enough takers. But that of course would mean the airline was guided by both sense and principal.

  6. Sometimes the “last to check in” are those folks who do not have a computer (think elderly). Why should they be penalized. Put all the seat numbers in a pail and draw out the number needed to be bumped.

  7. I think they should offload passengers the same way they sell tickets. Supply and demand. If they oversell, they should be required to up the compensation for those who will be voluntarily bumped until they have enough people who accept. Not unlike an auction. It only seems fair that if they roll the dice and lose by overbooking a plane, they should be forced to pay the consequences.

  8. At first, I was going to suggest “last checked in, first bumped”, but as pointed out, that can disadvantage non-tech-savvy people even more than they already are. Likewise, bumping people who paid the least seems problematic (it’s certainly the airlines’ choice, so as not to antagonize the best-paying customers) in that it may be hard to allocate amounts paid to a particular segment.
    The problem with most of these criteria is that the airline is retroactively assigning a benefit (or a cost) to some part of the travel process, which if disclosed in advance might have affected people’s choices. If I knew that a $50 sale price on a seat made me more likely to get bumped, I might opt for the next higher cost ticket. If I knew that checking in after the initial rush of “24-hours-before” people meant I was more likely to get bumped, then I’d be more likely to check in early.
    But this kind of mass bumping is rare, and it’s even rarer that it’s due to overweight planes with oversold cargo bins, so it seems imposing either of these criteria to select bumpees distorts the system.
    There are, however, two fair ways to do this. Given that the airline made the choice to sell more cargo space, as opposed to overselling the flight, it seems only fair to me that the airline bear the costs (meaning it can’t pick and choose among valuable and less-valuable passengers).
    The solution of raising the amount offered to bump until you finally pay out enough to get the plane empty enough is brilliant – after all, the amount of the last available ticket on a flight is likely to be whatever the airline thinks it can get, even if it’s $1500 to fly 500 miles. Given that, each airline should internally set a ceiling of how high it will go on particular flights to pay to bump someone (no doubt most would stop with a free flight voucher, flying on the next available flight, and if necessary a hotel and meals). If an airline wants to jack that up higher, and throw in some extra cash or a second flight voucher, fine.
    But when that limit is reached, and the airline determines it’s not cost-effective to raise the rate any higher, then a purely random selection should be made, from all fare classes. Those people, of course, should get standard DBC.
    That’s “fair”, in my book. It may not be the smartest business decision by the airline, but then neither was overbooking cargo. And the question asked was “What’s fair?”.

  9. The fairest way is to bump free or deply discounted tickets, then bottom fare classes. Obviouly, loyal elite members should be exempt from the bumping.

  10. Good Airlines DO have the ability to ensure their highest tier Frequent flyers are protected in such circumstances as a reward for loyalty,irrespective of fare paid(including those using Freq flyer booking).
    Checkin systems can highlight those who are important and those who are “less Important”.Airlines do try not to bump certain types of customers like those they know have connecting flights and unaccompanied children.They also have to ability to bump onto other airlines who have a service that minimizes the disruption.
    To me the right balance is lowest fares first who arent Freq flyers plus the above.
    If time is on the airlines side they should also search for passengers who may be able to be moved to altenative services like nonstop flight,rather than connecting services ,which possibly werent available when the booking was made when the highest priority was price over flexibility or a quicker trip. You can end up with a win win.
    The problem is airlines do juggle this sort of thing every day and it doesnt cause issues as people are moved to mutally agreeable altenatives.It generally only hits the papers where time runs out from a planning perspective and or there just arent other options out there.Bad outcomes sell more newsprint than a good outcome.Very few get their letter about how the airline moved them to a better flight/upgraded them published. You only have to go back to the recent volcanic ashe problems. Some airlines did a great job,other less so.
    These comments are made with many years operational experience at a major non US airline who tries follow these principles..cheers

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top

Free Weekly Emailed Newsletter

Usually weekly, since 2001, we publish a roundup of travel and travel related technology developments, and often a feature article too.

You’ll stay up to date with the latest and greatest (and cautioned about the worst) developments.  You’ll get information to help you choose and become a better informed traveler and consumer, how to best use new technologies, and at times, will learn of things that might entertain, amuse, annoy or even outrage you.

We’re very politically incorrect and love to point out the unrebutted hypocrisies and unfairnesses out there.

This is all entirely free (but you’re welcome to voluntarily contribute!), and should you wish to, easy to cancel.

We’re not about to spam you any which way and as you can see, we don’t ask for any information except your email address and how often you want to receive our newsletters.

Newsletter Signup - Welcome!

Thanks for choosing to receive our newsletters.  We hope you’ll enjoy them and become a long-term reader, and maybe on occasion, add comments and thoughts of your own to the newsletters and articles we publish.

We’ll send you a confirmation email some time in the next few days to confirm your email address, and when you reply to that, you’ll then be on the list.

All the very best for now, and welcome to the growing “Travel Insider family”.