United Breaks Passengers’ Sanity
The background of the United incident, from an aviation law and policy perspective.
As someone who grew up around airline employees (a grandfather and two uncles, none of whom were ever with United or its predecessors, for what it’s worth) I figured it would be helpful to add some background information to Steven Taylor’s post earlier today regarding the incident that took place over the weekend on a United Express flight from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Louisville (SDF).
- Overbooking happens. It’s why you can buy a cheap advance fare, because airlines know a lot of people miss their flights for a variety of reasons and they want to fill the seats. They also have absurdly sophisticated computer systems that figure out exactly how much to overbook each flight.
- 99.9% of the time, when a flight is space negative (i.e. literally there are fewer seats than butts to put in them), the airline is able to get people to volunteer to take a flight either later the same day or on a subsequent day, in exchange for compensation. That’s called “VDB” (voluntary denied boarding) compensation. Usually this compensation is a travel voucher of several hundred dollars; if there’s no other flight that day, they will also give you meal vouchers and a comped hotel room. You will also get booked on a flight to your ultimate destination. If you really sweet talk them they might even put you in first class.
- If the flight is still space negative, then they keep raising the offer until they reach whatever corporate limit has been set for the particular circumstance in question. $800 for a one-hour flight is about the maximum a gate agent is going to be allowed to offer (and probably above the IDB amount!). At that point the gate agent should probably seek authorization to go higher if there are no takers.
- Then we get to involuntary denied boarding (IDB). Generally this is done in reverse order by status, then fare class, then check-in time. So if you’re on the Spirit-competitive fare with no pre-assigned seats, you aren’t an elite member, and you checked in 15 minutes before the flight, you’re screwee #1. This continues to the point where seats = butts. IDB is based on arcane formulas set by the DOT based on the walk-up fare with a cap and adjustments based on how long the person is delayed. Unlike VDB, IDB entitles you to Cash Money (technically a check) instead of a voucher; you also get a flight to your destination or a refund. Airlines and gate agents hate doing IDB because it’s paperwork, it costs the airline more than VDB on its balance sheet (even if the value involved is less), and it has to be reported to the Department of Transportation.
- Ok, so why would you bump paying people from a flight to transport airline employees? Well, most of the time they’re flying on standby, which means if there are more butts than seats, they’re the first people kicked off. However, for operational reasons, airlines need people in places to fly planes and serve as flight crew (they’re called “space positive.”). Normally people cycle through to where they need to be as part of their regular flight rotations, but if someone gets sick, there’s a long delay, or (as happened in Chicago this week) weather intervenes, people end up in the wrong places to work their flights and they need to be moved or replaced.
- Why not dump them in a rental car or a Greyhound instead of displacing paying passengers? Normally, the airline actually would. But then we get to “hours of service” regulations from our friends at the Department of Transportation. The time the crew is in transit counts as service time until they get to their hotel. Once there, they need a specified amount of crew rest before they can legally work again, and sleeping in the car or in transit under uncontrolled conditions doesn’t count. This is for your safety. More than likely, the crew that United was sending to Louisville would not have been “legal” (that’s the term they use) to fly the flight the next day if they had arrived 4 hours later than planned. That would have impacted all of the passengers on the flight Monday morning from Louisville to the hub they were scheduled to fly, not just four people on ORD-SDF on Sunday evening.
- Why not fly another plane to Louisville? Ok, now you have to drag out another crew to fly four people to Louisville, and find a plane for them. And do it before they and the crew you’re transporting time out. Good luck with that, armchair airline operations planner.
- Why not have another crew in Louisville and every other city that United flies to on standby for this? Sure, they could. And if they were running United off oil money from the Emir of Qatar instead of trying to be (and sometimes even succeeding at being) a profitable business, maybe they could afford that. But we’re not talking about folks making $7.25 hour as standby cashiers at Target who can stock shelves when they’re not needed to work the registers. You’d be paying a lot of high-priced pilots and copilots and (somewhat less high-priced) flight attendants to literally do nothing. And while airlines do have people on standby at their hubs and crew bases, they don’t have them at every outstation in the system for the very simple reason that they can’t afford them. They couldn’t even afford them back in the pre-1979 CAA regulation days when everyone was (well, rich people and businessmen were) flying around in half-empty 727s with 20-inch wide seats and paying for the privilege.
All that said, United should have waved more cash in people’s faces when nobody bit at $800, but in the end if it came down to involuntary denied boarding… it sucks to be the designated screwee, but legally he’s got very little to nothing to complain about with regards to United’s behavior, which is fully within the FAA regulations and the contract of carriage for his ticket, even if it is a public relations issue for the airline. Regardless they are likely to offer him a substantial cash settlement to avoid further negative publicity and paying more lawyers.
His treatment at the hands of law enforcement (it is not exactly clear which agency or agencies were involved, from the accounts I read), however, is a separate question and one that could lead to a civil or criminal complaint (or both). So while it’s widely speculated that he might “own United” in the end, more likely than not he’s going to have to settle for stuff from Mayor Daley’s office instead.