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Morning Shift

Airline Overbooking And How It Led To United Fiasco

Booking a flight through United? Well, if you're not one of the hundreds of millions of folks who've watched a man get dragged off a flight at O'Hare International Airport, then you might want to know about an airline practice known as overbooking. 

On Monday, a United flight from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked, so a flight employee asked if any passengers would volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for some compensation. United reportedly needed four seat for some of its own employees. No on volunteered, and passengers were selected to be bumped off the flight. One of those passengers, a doctor, said he needed to be home in the morning to see patients and refused to leave the aircraft. Security officers were called and what came next sparked widespread criticism. 

Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia talks about overbooking, United's response to the incident and what the airline should have done with Robert Mark, who spent more than 35 years in the aviation industry, with a large chunk of that time as a commercial pilot. He also runs the JetWhine aviation blog.

Here are some highlights from their conversation. 

On how United should have handled the situation

Robert Mark: This man didn’t start the problem — United Airlines did. And I think what makes this really difficult is there was really a simple solution to this. United knew before they even boarded all the people into the airplane that they needed some volunteers. So the place to have dealt with this was at the gate where there’s a little more open space, where if some tempers flew, you could pull someone off to the side.

On United CEO Oscar Munoz's response

Mark: I used to be a public relations instructor at the Medill School of Journalism, and this would have been a classic case of horrible PR. I mean, to use the words ‘re-accomodate a passenger’ after you’ve dragged the man down the aisle is a really interesting choice. The problem with most of the airlines is that we don’t believe the people who run them are like the rest of us; they act very corporate. This was corporate-speak coming from Oscar Munoz, and that’s what drives people crazy.

On rule books

Mark: From the people I know and the friends I have that work at United – many that are pilots — they say United is very rule focused. This is the rule book. This is how you follow it. No exceptions. And other airlines, other companies, have found that the route to happy, healthy customer and corporate culture is to give the people who are on the front lines a little flexibility to solve a problem without imposing a rule book they had nothing to do with creating.

On the origins of overbooking 

Mark: Overbooking is really an ancient process. In the old days, you used to be able to book an airline ticket without having to pay for it. And what the airlines found is that there were a lot of people that just changed their minds at the last minute. Airlines lost profit, so they started charging for it and now airlines have such a whopping change fee that if you decide you can’t make the flight, they keep your money. The worst part: They got greedy and they said, 'You know what, that seat’s empty. It’s already been paid for, let’s see if we can get a few more bucks out of somebody by opening it up to buy.'

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview. 

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