Is The United Airlines PR Debacle A Line In The Sand For Passenger Rights?

A video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off flight 3411 against his will has gone viral and has left United Airlines with yet another PR disaster in an ever increasing line of them, but will this incident bring into question the practice of overbooking? And will it make passengers question just why they are getting such bad service across the board from all airlines in the first place?

In this specific incident flight 3411 was not initially overbooked, but it was full, and became overbooked when at the last minute the airline decided they needed four seats for crew members deadheading.

In these incidents it is standard operating procedure to ‘bump’ passengers to other flights and offer them compensation, which is what they started to do. The problem with this decision was the fact that the passengers had already boarded and sat down and bumped passengers should be approached at the gate before boarding. They offered them $400, then $800, and most passengers weren’t having any of it. Hardly surprising when the best of those offers are half of what the US Department of Transportation states passengers should get in these circumstances.

So instead of doing the logical thing and keep upping the compensation to a point where passengers were tempted, they just said they will be picking four people at random and they would be removed.

That’s nice, right? You’ve paid for a service but screw you anyway.

One man who was chosen refused to leave. And I don’t blame him in the slightest. In my opinion as a paying customer once he was boarded onto the plane and sat down, he had every right to expect the airline to fulfill their end of the contract and get him to where he was going at the time he wanted to be there.

A Catalogue Of Errors.

And this is where things get really bad. When the passenger refused to leave, crew members called security and the man was forcibly – and violently – removed against his will.

So United Airlines cocks things up on this flight, and their course of action is to punish customers with severe inconvenience and use violence when they don’t comply. Good job United.

Video has blown up all over social media of 3 members of security physically dragging the man against his will out of the seat, slamming his head against one of the armrests in the process and then dragging his bleeding and unconscious body down the aisle to disembark him.

At one point the man regained consciousness and managed to get back onto the plain, clearly injured and seriously disorientated.

In a statement straight out of the abusive partner playbook of excuses, the Chicago Police Force did release a statement that said “Aviation officers arrived on scene and attempted to carry the individual off the flight when he fell and hit his head on the armrest.’

Oh he ‘slipped and fell’? Well that must be his own stupid fault then, right?  Did he happen to walk into a cupboard door on the way out too?

Now to be fair on United Airlines this specific part of the incident was down to the security officers involved, one of whom has since been ‘placed on leave‘, and in some sense they should share some of the responsibility too. But the entire situation was wholly down to, and the responsibility of, United Airlines. They cannot duck responsibility for this. How they handled the situation, the decisions they made, were wholly down to them. They caused this situation and escalated it to the point it reached when it clearly never had to get that far.

This is in my opinion indicative of a much wider problem of just how much contempt all airlines in general treat paying customers.

The whole practice of overbooking, a practice where airlines purposely sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, in the hope they can fill up empty seats on other flights with bumped passengers, is one of the most hated and complained about things airlines do. In a very long list of hated things airlines do. Yet they do it anyway because it suits them to do so, forget the fact that it routinely screws paying customers over.

Here’s an idea, if a plane has a hundred seats, why not just sell a hundred tickets for that damn flight? If you need to ferry crew members from one airport to another for operational reasons, why not keep a number of seats back for them instead of – once again – screwing over a paying customer?

They won’t do that of course, because that would mean having both common sense and also giving a damn about customer care. And this is simply not something that is on the radar of any airline for any reason.

Everything from shrinking seat pitch to the point the average sized person can barely fit in any more or routinely losing luggage and offering the minimal compensation they can get away with, to routinely slashing and cutting service in the name of cost cutting and forcing passengers to pay extra for things that were once taken for granted. The infamous toilet charge idea that Ryanair was forced to scramble back on would be the funniest example of this if it weren’t true.

Airlines Know They Will Get Away With It.

The fact is, the airline industry knows it can do what it want when it wants, and decreasing passenger rights and services mean nothing to an industry that has no real sanctions against it for such actions.

Basically the entire industry can treat passengers however they like, and force them to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Just look at the response from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, who in a statement actually had the audacity to ask why the customer defied security officers the way he did.

Do you not think that it was because the flight crew were in the wrong? Maybe that as a paying customer who had already boarded he had a right to expect you to fulfill your part of the contract and a clear right to refuse your initial offers that he clearly did not think was enough to compensate for his time or the inconvenience?

Oscar Munoz actually stated:

“Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation”. Oscar Munoz.

Say it as much as you want Oscar, but repeating a PR mantra doesn’t make it so, and there are a lot of people with a lot of smartphone cameras that would be pretty quick to call you a hypocrite at this point.

As United Airlines have learned this week, the power of technology and social media mean that those practices are under scrutiny like they never have been in the past, and negative publicity can seriously harm an airlines business. The hashtag #BoycottUnited exploded immediately after the incident happened, and once that starts having an impact on the airlines bottom line, they may, just may, start taking notice and changing policy.

So I sincerely hope that people do boycott United Airlines, and despite rarely thinking the sue culture is a good thing, I seriously hope this man sues United into the ground, and if it threatens to put them out of business, all the better.

Because it is long past time the aviation industry is shown that customer care and passenger rights are actually things they should be concerned about and need to start getting right.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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The 10 Most Annoying Things About Flying.

Why United Airlines Basic Economy Tickets Worry Me.

Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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77 comments on “Is The United Airlines PR Debacle A Line In The Sand For Passenger Rights?
  1. Nick says:

    This is disgusting and wholly the fault of United, they did not need to let it get this far at all. They could have simply offered more money hoping someone would take it. They could and should have offered up to $1300 before kicking anyone off according to their own poicies, and then if they were so desperate carried on offering more. Instead they thought it would be smart to save some money and have “security” forces violently assault a passenger.

  2. Anya says:

    This guy needs to sue the hell out of United, and everyone else needs to stop flying with them. Companies like this only understand money. #boycottunited

  3. Unfortunately I think hat nothing at all will change. There is absolutely nothing forcing the airlines to do so and they won’t get any punishment or sanctions for this. They basically have free reign to treat passengers however they like. The only hope we have is if they get so much negative publicity from this over a sustained period, and they lose so much money in a lawsuit (and get further negative press from that) they are forced to change. But I really don’t see that happening.

    • Unfortunately I think you are right. This is why I have argued for a long time there needs to be far more restrictive and punitive measures taken against airlines when they fail like this. And measures taken to punish them without allowing them to pass those costs onto customers.

  4. Marie says:

    I’m with the crew here, a pilot and the crew has to be sure that the flight and all passengers on it are safe. This man is clearly unstable and you have to abide by the rules on an airplane which he clearly wasn’t. It’s no wondr he was thrown off. If they had to use force it was because he was resisting.

    • At what point was he considered unsafe? At what point was he acting anything other than calm, collected and relaxed like any other passenger BEFORE he was unreasonably asked to disembark and then the crew escalated the situation and called security. If YOU were being bullied in that way would you not get a little ‘resistive’? I know I would. And the whole point of the article is that the rules themselves are unreasonable in that they give the airlines carte blanche to treat passengers however the hell they please!

  5. Emily Nugent says:

    United definitely could have handled this better, Start offering large enough compensation for passengers to consider giving up their seats voluntarily for starters. There were so many points were this could have gone so differently but poor policies, poor decisions and poor judgement on Uniteds part made this happen. Like you say they are technically allowed to do so (by rules THEY set funnily enough) but that does not make it right.

    • They really could have. They have to remember that this was their cock up and they are the ones inconveniencing paying customers, ASKING people to do them a favour, understanding that the passengers would be doing them a favour and offering decent compensation to cover that inconvenience and by way of apologising was the very, very start of what they should have been doing, not automatically kicking people off at random because it suited them.

  6. Paul says:

    I think you are absolutely right, the CEO’s so called apology just shows how little they care for their customers, because they know they have us over a barrel.

  7. Sarah Summers says:

    As soon as security turned up this ‘doctor’ should have been smart enough to leave the plane with them. He has to take some of the blame himself.

    • Why? He was not drunk or disorderly, he was not being aggressive or causing any other problems to passengers or crew. He was asked to VOLUNTARILY give up his seat, which he chose not to do. The crew should have never called security in the first place. The fact that they were called at all escalated the situation far beyond the point it should have gotten to.

  8. Carl Williams says:

    Well more and more people are starting to come forward after what happened to the doctor went viral, so yes Id say a line in the sand is being drawn.

  9. Wendy Yeung says:

    I hope so. Something is needed to stop airlines like this thinking they can get away with treating passengers worse than cattle.

  10. David Sanders says:

    From what I can see it was the police/security that behaved appallingly, it is clearly excessive force and violence, but that isn’t really the fault of the United crew.

    • No it absolutely is. I agree it was the security personell who acted way out of line and used excessive force (and they should be punished for that) but it is the United crew who forced that situation in the first place, and then unnecessarily escalated it by calling security. It IS their fault at the end of the day and they do have to take full responsibility.

  11. laura woodhouse says:

    With the way airlines act and behave toward their customers in honestly surprised this doesn’t happen more often. I cant blame that guy at all, I think if I’d paid for a flight, boarded the plane and was ready to go, and they told me I had to get off to let crew fly, I wouldn’t go either. Especially with no compensation to make up for what is a massive inconvenience for their mistake.

    • Exactly, I wouldn’t either. What a lot of people are forgetting with the way they sell tickets is that when the airlines get to the point of bumping passengers because they purposely sold more tickets or think that some passengers are better than others, they are heaping a lot of inconvenience, hassle and wasted time on those passengers for what is their mistake and their fault, and it goes far beyond simply giving them part of their ticket price back. When you – as an airline – compensate someone for that level of inconvenience you have to go above and beyond and respect the fact that it is the passenger who decides what is sufficient, not you, and it has to come with a severe apology and thank you for helping them, plus the fact that if those passengers refuse, you cannot just call security!

  12. Murat Geml says:

    I genuinely hope the guy from this flight sues United for everything and they never recover from this. They are the worst airline in a bad industry.

  13. bcre8v2 says:

    Great post. I completely agree with you and many of the points raised by others who have commented. Higher compensation might have elicited more volunteers to start with. If I were told I had to get off a plane I had already boarded when I needed to be somewhere or make a tight connection, I would have refused too. When this gentleman refused after he was selected at random, couldn’t the airline have moved on to someone else? (Though I think the whole idea of forcing people off who have already boarded simply for the convenience of some airline employees is wrong.) Could they have announced that they will call names at random and these people, if they choose to get off, will be offered $1300 (or more) as a thank you for helping them out? So many better ways this situation could have been handled. I can see this quickly devolving into “blame the customer”, which is completely wrong! I plan to boycott United when faced with selecting an airline for my travels. I also plan to hit their social media pages and share my opinions. Again, thanks for posting this.

    • Thanks Bcrev, you are right. If enough compensation was offered (and the amount of what is considered suitable compensation and what is not is decided by the passengers themselves, not united) then they would have had volunteers I am sure. The fact that they just decided to say screw you we’ll pick four at random because it will save us money is shockingly unnacceptable, and like I said earlier it goes far beyond what they did to this man (which was clear physical abuse as well as clear violation of the mans dignity and rights) and speaks volumes of how airlines think they can treat all passengers. It really is a case of we can do what we want, treat you like crap and if you don’t like it we’ll take your money, call security and not let you fly. How dare they? I just get so frustrated that they are allowed to get away with this time after time. And I don’t think you’l be the only one boycotting United! Thanks for the comment.

  14. Kevin says:

    I agree, this is a line in the sand. Time to show united and all airlines that passengers are sick of being treated like crap on their shoes. We do not give up our rights or our dignity just because we decide to fly with them.

  15. Elena Price says:

    Great article and so spot on. Can you even imagine this happening in any other industry? Imagine getting to a hotel room and being violently hauled out because someone more important had turned up? Imagine being in the middle of a meal when the waiter takes your food away and violently kicks you out because the manager fancies his dinner at that table, it just doesn’t happen! So why are airlines allowed to get away with it?

  16. Gupta Shweta says:

    I agree, airlines are not giving great service and treat us like cattle. It is not right.

  17. John says:

    Id agree with you that people in general are getting to boiling point when it comes to the way they are treated by airlines but the problem is what do we do? Consumer rights groups are barely above token level and there is no real punishment or action taken against airlines, especially when they always have that vague ‘security’ excuse to fall back on.

    • Excellent point and you are absolutely right. We don’t have an recourse as passengers at the moment. Airlines are basically given carte blanche to act an way they please and throw out measly (and often insulting) ‘compensation’ when they are found to be in the wrong. There is no real recourse for passengers and no real punitive action for the airlines. That is why I hope this backlash goes far further than this one case.

  18. Louis says:


  19. Vicky Smith says:

    United are the Ryanair of the US, and I know they are budget airlines but no frills doesn’t mean no service at all and it certainly doesn’t mean removal of basic human dignity and rights. I hope United suffer bad for this and passengers actually start saying enough is enough.

  20. We flew United to California and on our return leg we unfortunately had to do a stop in Denver. As usual, they overbooked the plane. After re-arranging our next day schedule we took advantage of the money on offer ($600) as well as free upgrade on our flight home as well as the flight we rebooked on using our money.. We were happy, but would have been furious if we’d been randomly chosen to miss the flight! Won’t fly United again though, just because of the possibility of being bumped.

    • Exactly, it is an absolutely ridiculous system, and I agree with you that sometimes – in some circumstances – the compensation they offer is acceptable to the passengers involved. I was asked to volunteer to be bumped once (with a major airline, not united) on a layover and was given $800, a free hotel room for the night and (after a negotiation/demand from me) an upgrade on my next flight to finish my journey. That was acceptable to me at the time because it was done before anyone boarded I was in no rush and didn’t have to connect anywhere. But if they had come up and just told me I had been randomly selected regardless of if the compensation was enough or not I would have refused too. It is the simple fact that airlines like United think they have the right to do this in the first place that is shocking.

  21. Chris Walker says:

    United should be ashamed of themselves for this, bit you are right in that it just shows how little airlines give a damn about their customers.

  22. Barbara says:

    Watching that video is just heartbreaking, there has to be a better way.

  23. Mary says:

    I completely agree with you here, everyone is blaming the security and the cabin crew – and don’t get me wrong they have blame too – but the real responsibility lies with the CEO and the airlines policies (and every airline policy for that matter) which allow these situations to happen in the first place. The only thing that will change that is if this backlash causes them to lose so much money they have to change or even go out of business altogether as a warning to other airlines! (I for one won’t be sad to see them go!)

  24. Kara Leibowitz says:

    If that had been me they were ‘volunteering’ to give up my seat I’d be suing every single one of them individually, including the security, the crew, the CEO AND the airline too. And it isn’t just about the money, it is like you say, drawing a line in the sand and saying you cannot do this.

  25. Susan Brooke - Short says:

    I wouldn’t have gotten off either and good on him for standing his ground like that, even when they threatened him with violence! I hope he sues them for millions! #boycottunited

  26. Rob McGregor says:

    No I disagree, the fact is this man refused the orders of security, what did he expect to happen exactly?

    • He had every right to refuse. He was in the right, United were in the wrong. Security should never have been there in the first place and United escalated that situation unnecessarily by bringing them in. United – like all airline crew – know they have the ultimate trump card with security because they have an attitude that once they are called they have won. That is wrong.

  27. Rob McGregor says:

    And by all reports coming out now he wasn’t exactly a nice guy anyway.

    • So what? It could have been Hitler in disguise on that plane, it still doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to the way he was treated. Passengers are not given background checks before buying tickets (nor should they do) so as far as anyone was and is concerned he is a simple law abiding citizen who has lawfully purchased a ticket and has a right to the seat he bought and a right to expect the airline to fulfill their end of that contract. All of this victim shaming that is going on and downright smearing in some cases is very wrong.

    • Hayley Mackay says:

      Yeah right Rob, it doesn’t matter in the slightest who this guy is. He did nothing wrong and was abused by airline security. The fact that he was supposedly belligerent was only because the airline behaved the way they did. They had no right to tell him to leave. Id be pretty damn annoyed too. Its the same as pushing someone again and again and again and then calling them aggressive when they push you back.

  28. Mary Whittaker says:

    I notice now that United are getting a huge backlash and their stocks are plummeting that it has suddenly gone from the CEO saying the passenger was at fault to saying we are ashamed and so sorry! Where’s the attitude now? I hope ALL airlines are watching this backlash very closely!

  29. Hayley Mackay says:

    Apparently now after a massive turnaround and a grovelling apology the CEO of United is giving everyone on that flight a full refund in compensation! He is running scared and knows that even if he can legally get away with this in court (technicalities and part of procedure and all that) he is going to suffer bad for it if it gets that far!

    • I saw that too and I have to admit feeling just a little bit smug watching the CEO squirm and apologise. Compensation for everyone is the least he can do. I hope that man sues the holy hell out of United to the point where they almost go under and the entire industry starts to reeavaluate how they treat customers.

  30. Jim McDonald says:

    They gave him a seat, they boarded him, they should live with that. Even if it was a mistake and they needed that seat for crew they should be pleading and bribing, not removing him forcefully – oh wait, ‘reaccomodating’ him.

    • That ‘reaccomodating’ term came back to haunt the CEO didn’t it?! Completely out of touch. But you are absolutely right, if they are going to inconvenience travellers because of their mistake or because it makes things easier for them then a paltry token compensation amount will never cut it.

  31. Mary says:

    Employees who are on standby because they are needed at other airports should be flown at the airlines expense on the next empty seat, not bumping paying customers who have already boarded. It’s no wonder this guy argued, I would too!

  32. Mai Ling says:

    The CEO has now come out completely reversing his original statement and apologising, even offering to compensate everyone on that flight. He is an absolute liar. He is only saying these things because has seen the effect on the company’s shares and is trying to claw back the quickly dwindling money. Once thats done they’ll revert to business as usual.

  33. Reena Haizam says:

    Passengers are always treated badly by airlines. They don’t care because they don’t have to.

  34. Lena Fischer says:

    I loved this post and found myself nodding to every part of it! I agree this goes far beyond one (horrible) incident and speaks to the way airlines in general treat passengers. I read about this incident that the man invoved was going to sue United for everything they have and they very, very quickly settled out of court (no doubt for a hefty sum), but also said they are changing policy and shifting toward customer care. Am I the only one who was thinking shouldn’t customer care been part of your policy anyway? Love the post. Thank you.

  35. Amanda McTuerney says:

    It definitely should be but I don’t think it will. A few months on now and it has all been forgotten. Things are quietly dealt with under the table and then the airlines just carry on as normal.

  36. Anna Pylzaski says:

    You are right I am tired of airline companies treating passengers like dirt.

  37. Leah says:

    It’s not just United, have you heard of Ryanair just cancelling flights in the UK? It’s just ridiculous how they can get away with doing stuff like this!

  38. Dan says:

    Excellent article, and it goes far beyond this incident now. Airlines just keep on treating passengers with absolute contempt over and over again year after year. Something needs to be done.

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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