United Airlines changes policy; crew can't displace seated passengers

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United Airlines is changing a company policy and will no longer allow crew members to displace customers already onboard an airplane. (WPVI)

United Airlines is changing a company policy and will no longer allow crew members to displace customers already onboard an airplane.

The change comes after a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was dragged from a fully-booked United Express flight in Chicago because he refused to give up his seat to make room for crew members.

Cellphone video of the incident sparked widespread outrage and created a public-relations nightmare for United.

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Video shows three security officials dragging a male passenger from a United Airlines flight that the airline said was overbooked.



Under the change outlined in an internal April 14 email, a crew member must make must-ride bookings at least 60 minutes prior to departure. Crews could previously be booked until the time of departure.

United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said in an email Sunday that the change is an initial step in a review of policies and it's meant to ensure that situations like Dao's never happen again. Had the rule been in place last Sunday, United Express Flight 3411 still would have been overbooked by four seats, but United employees could have dealt with the situation in the gate area instead of on the plane.

Late last week, Delta announced it letting employees offer customers nearly $10,000 in compensation to give up seats on overbooked flights, hoping to avoid a similar uproar as airlines scramble to respond to the public-relations nightmare.

United said it is reviewing its compensation policies. The airline would not disclose its current payment limit.

Other airlines said they were examining their policies. American Airlines updated its rules to say that no passenger who has boarded the plane will be removed to give the seat to someone else.

None would describe their limits on paying passengers.

When there aren't enough seats, airlines usually ask for volunteers by offering travel vouchers, gift cards or cash.

Last year, Delta got more passengers to give up their seats than any other U.S. airline, partly by paying more than most of the others.

As a result, it had the lowest rate among the largest U.S. airlines of bumping people off flights against their will - something that is legal but alienates customers and requires the airline to pay compensation of up to $1,350 per person.

Overselling flights is a fact of life in the airline business. Industry officials say that it is necessary because some passengers don't show up, and that overbooking keeps fares down by reducing the number of empty seats.

The practice has been questioned, however, since video of the United Express incident went viral. United Continental CEO Oscar Munoz's initial attempts to apologize were roundly criticized. On Friday, company Chairman Robert Milton said the board supported Munoz.

"We need to use this regrettable event as a defining moment and pivot off it to craft friendly policies," Milton said in a note to employees.

The dragging has turned into a public-relations nightmare for the entire industry, not just United, and led to calls from politicians and consumer advocates to suspend or ban overbooking.

Ben Schlappig, a travel blogger who first wrote about the Delta compensation increase, said it shows Delta is trying to reduce forced bumping. He said he couldn't imagine many situations in which people wouldn't jump at nearly $10,000.

Delta no doubt hopes that gate agents and their supervisors won't need to make maximum offers, and the financial cost to the airline is likely to be limited. If Delta paid $9,950 to every person it bumped involuntarily last year, that would total $12 million. Delta earned nearly $4.4 billion.

Raising the limits "lets them solve some PR problems" and might head off U.S. Transportation Department regulations to curb overbooking, said another travel blogger, Gary Leff. "They can say, 'Look, we're already solving the problem.'"

An AP analysis of government data shows that in 2015 and 2016, Delta paid an average of $1,118 in compensation for every passenger that it denied a seat. Southwest Airlines paid $758, United $565, and American Airlines $554.

After the incident in Chicago, critics questioned why United didn't offer more when no passengers accepted the airline's $800 offer for volunteers to give up their seats.

"If you offer enough money, even the guy going to a funeral will sell his seat," said Ross Aimer, a retired United pilot.
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