MIAMI – The shocking footage of Dr. David Dao being physically dragged off United Express Flight 3411 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on April 9, 2017, set off a media firestorm, leaving people astounded as to what could possibly lead to such a violent act against a paying customer.
That video and the stories that followed infuriated many, leading to a flood of “Boycott United” hashtags on Twitter in the days following the incident. It also led to a scolding of airline executives before Congress.
With the power of social media, it was easy for the world to “tsk tsk” the airline, but should all the blame be directed toward United? Are there bigger issues at hand that are being overshadowed?
In the aftermath of the incident, United Airlines issued a report that called out its own failures, namely the inappropriate use of law enforcement personnel, rebooking crewmembers too late, not offering enough compensation to passengers as an incentive to willingly give up a seat and insufficient employee training.
Anthony Roman, president of Roman and Associates -a risk management and investigation firm- agrees with United CEO, Oscar Munoz, that the airline managed the problem poorly.
“Trying to remove a paid passenger who had a seat assigned from a common carrier aircraft because of a last-minute employee scheduling issue was not proper,” he said. But even though United was certainly the catalyst behind what happened, Roman doesn’t think they’re the only ones at fault.
“When a passenger on an aircraft ignores a lawful order from the flight crew, that created an unsafe situation for passengers, which was equally as bad,” Roman said. “Dao put everyone at risk.”
Roman, a former commercial pilot himself, noted that even when an aircraft is at the gate, there is still the chance, albeit small, of an emergency, such as a fire. And with mere seconds to deplane in a situation like that, a passenger who is fighting with police is creating an obstruction of the main aisle and is committing a serious offense.
“The passenger, while correct in protesting, should have cooperated and filed a complaint with the airline, the police and the appropriate federal agencies that provide regulations for aircraft and passenger safety and management,” he said.
After citing its failures, United updated its policies, with some going into effect immediately and some forthcoming by the end of 2017. Highlights include limiting the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues, increasing customer compensation incentives up to $10,000, ensuring crews are booked onto flights at least 60 minutes prior to departure, providing additional employee training and empowering employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment.
United also committed to reducing the amount of overbooking, but it’s important to note that at the time of the Flight 3411 incident, the plane was at capacity. “I’m familiar with United’s policy changes and think they’re perfectly appropriate,” Roman said. “The message that has been lost here, though, is that this passenger created a dangerous condition for the other passengers.”
Even In A Stressful Flying Environment, Safety Needs To Come First
The captain of an aircraft is the final authority regarding all actions taken by the plane’s crew.
“Should the captain determine that law enforcement is required, he or she is fully authorized to request the assistance of law enforcement for the removal of a passenger,” Roman said. “However, the safety of all passengers must be given primary consideration when making this decision.”
For today’s travelers, getting from point A to point B quickly is often more important to them than doing so safely. And the same goes for the airlines – they want to get you on the plane and off the ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. And when that flow is disrupted, it can create a high-tension environment both for the crew and for the passengers.
“I think that disturbances such as the one we saw on United Flight 3411 are becoming increasingly common as a result of passenger frustrations with scheduling delays, overbooking and basically a lack of communication by administrative personnel concerning situations that occur and create delays,” Roman said.
He also added that the efforts around keeping passengers informed relative to rebooking, redirection, sleeping accommodations and the like are not as good as they should be. “All of this contributes to a stressful flying environment and creates opportunity for terminal and inflight disturbances by passengers.”
Roman says that the real lesson learned here is that both airline policy and police procedures should make every effort to recognize that the primary concern on an aircraft, whether airborne or on the ground, is passenger safety. “Everything should be done to avoid a condition in which passenger safety may be compromised.”
But even though it’s likely not what travelers want to hear, passengers and their safety may not be at the heart of the decisions that airlines are having to make.
Pressure From Wall Street May Be Too Much
American Airlines recently announced pay raises for its pilots and flight attendants – and Citi analyst Kevin Crissey wasn’t having it. He was upset that employees were being paid first “again,” leaving only “leftovers” for the shareholders. This action and reaction could offer insight as to what is really driving the decisions that airline leaders are making.
Bob Ross, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (AFPA) which represents 26,000 flight attendants at American Airlines, recently wrote an opinion piece for Aviation Week titled “If Air Rage is Out of Control, Ask Management.” In it, he notes that he receives reports of “air rage” every day, including both physical and verbal abuse toward flight attendants.
“Do you think, just maybe, this is getting out of hand?” he asks.
Ross said that when he began working as a flight attendant 34 years ago, the job was about “service, safety, and maximizing the customer experience.” But now, with a rise in low-cost carriers and major airlines offering no-frills “basic economy” fares, it’s more about cramming as many people onto a plane as possible to maximize profits.
“When you combine tight schedules, overcrowded aircraft and shrinking seats with less pitch and limited overhead bin space, you have a recipe for frustration,” Ross said. And he added that factors such as overbooked flights and American’s “Optimizer” computer program that calculates the minimum optimum amount of time that airplanes can be on the ground, erasing any margin for error, all add to this tension.
Ross wants people to recognize the significant role flight attendants play in an airline’s success or failure, and even suggests staffing flights with more flight attendants instead of sticking with the “minimum government mandates.”
All airplanes with a seating capacity of more than 50 passengers are required by law to have two flight attendants on board. And planes with a seating capacity of more than 100 passengers must have an additional flight attendant for each unit (or part of a unit) of 50 passengers above and beyond the 100.
With the airline industry “enjoying record profits,” as Ross notes, maybe it is time to make some changes. Just as Roman said, these incidents are happening more and more.
It seems to be an endless cycle of stressed and under pressure management making decisions to please investors, which in turn creates the tense flying environment that has passengers on edge. “It is time to give back and think about finding ways to make flying less stressful and more comfortable,” Ross said.
It’s evident that travelers today are more rushed than ever before. And in many cases, the luxurious experience that flying once was has become more of an “in-and-out” almost bus-like experience for travelers.
The airlines have certainly taken note, however, as to how the flying experience is often viewed these days. And many are bringing back long-gone amenities in an effort to improve the coach passenger experience.
In February, Delta announced it would begin offering complimentary meal service in coach on a dozen of its longer routes as a part of a larger effort to improve the customer experience. A month later American followed suit by announcing that beginning May 1, it too would offer free meals in coach on nonstop flights between New York and both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
And while United hasn’t jumped on the “free meals in coach” bandwagon, the airline is hoping to improve the passenger experience by simply making it more comfortable. In April United announced its investment in new “best-in-class” economy seats for several of its aircraft, also as a part of a larger effort to transform the customer experience.
But is it enough? It’s certainly a start, but it’s going to take time and likely more effort on behalf of the airlines to get passengers to start seeing flying as a luxury again, not just as a business.
With incidents like the one on United Flight 3411, it’s easy to point fingers, especially after seeing the violent, disturbing footage that emerged. But it’s important to remember that safety on board an aircraft isn’t solely in the hands of the captain and the crew; passengers also play a vital role. And in situations where law enforcement is involved, passengers must obey the orders of police officers to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them.
United is certainly at fault for letting something like the incident with Dr. Dao happen in the first place, but just as Roman and Ross alluded to, there’s a bigger underlying issue here.
If the airlines continue to further their efforts around catering to passenger wants and needs, and if they begin to value passenger safety and satisfaction, they’ll certainly be taking steps in the right direction. But only time will tell if these efforts will be enough to lessen the on-board tension to where the flurry of recent incidents that cause a stir on social media will begin to dissipate.