The outrage is justified. The team of United Airlines, and its CEO saying they had “no choice” are wrong. Period. The man that was dragged out of one of its planes on Sunday­­––literally––paid for his seat. And, yes, there were other ways to handle the situation of a paying customer who did not want to give up his seat after being asked.

If you would like to watch some of this horrible video, you can click here. The passenger did not steal that seat. He was not disruptive––even if as the CEO mentioned––he raised his voice. I’ve been in tough situations in business where people raise their voices but are not causing a violent situation to arise. The man paid for a seat with his hard-earned money, and when the airline was looking for volunteers to get off the plane, he did not want to get off after he was asked to disembark.

The airlines “go to” position is to call the cops and escalate the situation? In whose book of leadership and management is that the way to deal with a disgruntled customer?

United Airlines found itself overbooked and wanted to get a crew on the plane so they could work on a later flight. The fact of the matter is that airlines always seek to overbook any flight. In theory, the few no shows that typically happen for each trip means that everyone gets a seat. However, sometimes (and if you’re a frequent traveler, you know it’s often enough), there are too many people for the flight. And that’s where the airlines begin looking for volunteers to get off a plane by offering financial incentives.

  • According to Federal law, airlines can give a passenger up to four times the cost of the ticket (up to $1,350), and by law, the passenger has to leave his or her seat. In this case, the airline was too cheap to go to the maximum. The facts are still unfolding, but reports are that the crew offered $800. The CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, claimed they offered $1,000 in an email to the employees.

Many of us in a similar situation would probably have said that $800 or $1,000 was not enough and we needed to get to our destination. We may have had work or family obligations. We may have needed to attend an important event or appointment. There might have been hundreds of reasons, but you know something? It doesn’t matter.

  • At some point, someone on the flight would have given up their seat if the financial incentive was high enough. If United Airlines had offered the full $1,350, perhaps this man who was bloodied and dazed would have peacefully been removed from the plane when he asked.

United Airlines bears the full brunt of the responsibility. They had a lot of room to maneuver and could have kept increasing the amount until someone volunteered. They are a global corporation. They could have offered, in reality, whatever they wanted. 

When they made the decision to call the Chicago Department of Aviation, this raised the heat considerably. Instead of increasing the financial incentive and help inform customers about the rights of the airline and the passengers, they decided to “get tough.” United Airlines didn’t have to go there.

No other business would have someone legally and rightfully pay for product or service only to then take it back and, essentially, bring in the muscle when someone is not doing what is asked of them. I didn’t realize saying “no” to a corporate giant warrants a physical altercation.

I also wonder what the captain did. At the end of the day, once the passengers boarded his plane, the people were his responsibility.

Additionally, my bet is most people may not realize airlines have a right, by law, to remove passengers if they are overbooked and provide the proper incentives. I wonder if the United Airlines crew informed the passengers about this reality? Most people may not be aware and if you tell them that the law provides that the airline can legally remove people with financial compensation, my bet is people will comply.

  • Do you know what the price for an airline ticket around the world? Depending on the route, it can be as little as $3,000. So, if United Airlines wanted to remain as one of the airlines of choice, it could have even gone above and beyond and had fun with its passengers and offered a ticket to Europe or $3,000 toward a ticket around the world.

Again, it’s a global corporation, and it has the right to make business decisions as it sees fit. The words from the CEO that they had “no choice” ring hollow. It’s just not true.

Telling passengers that the financial incentive was enough for a ticket overseas or even around the world would have been infinitely less expensive regarding United Airlines’ finances, brand image and reputation than offering a low financial incentive and then calling the cops to remove a paying customer forcibly.

Now, there are two likely scenarios that United Airlines has to deal with:

  1. A lawsuit. The man who was bloodied and dragged off that flight will probably sue. That alone will cost them at least a few hundred thousand dollars.
  1. If you take a look at social media, people are disgusted by the actions of United Airlines, and here’s what they’re doing––they’re taking their business elsewhere. If even 100 people decide to travel with another carrier and not United Airlines for the average price of a domestic airline ticket ($379), that alone cost the airline $37,900. Again, the cost is way more than a higher incentive amount they could have offered and the hit on its brand.

Good going, United Airlines!


Author of “Not Your Father’s Charity: Grip & Rip Leadership for Social Impact” (Free Digital Download)

© 2017 Wayne Elsey and Not Your Father’s Charity. All Rights Reserved.