Will United’s PR Disaster Finally Make Airlines Reconsider the Hated Practice of Overbooking?

Experts are doubtful, but consumer discontent is clear

Twitter: @JayseDavid, @Tyler_Bridges

Now that it’s gone viral, the video showing three burly airport security officers physically dragging a screaming passenger off United Airlines Flight 3411 yesterday has left the carrier with quite the public relations nightmare—along with a broader question: Will this very public, shocking incident result in broader changes to airline booking policies?

In case you missed it, a passenger was forcibly removed and literally dragged from a United Airlines plane prior to takeoff at Chicago O’Hare Airport on Sunday. The flight wasn’t initially overbooked in the traditional sense of an oversold number of tickets, until the airline realized it would need seats for crew members deadheading to Louisville, Ky., to take over another flight.

Following standard procedure, United asked for volunteers to give up their seats. When no volunteers came forward, the airline randomly selected four passengers on board to be bumped. One of them—who said he was doctor due to see patients the following morning—refused to give up his seat, resulting in his forcible removal at the hands of security (as several nearby passengers filmed it all on their phones).

United, still recovering from a a recent social media flare-up around teen passengers who weren’t allowed to board in leggings, was quickly shredded on Facebook and Twitter as the new video went viral.

“Social media, and particularly real-time video, has led to unprecedented transparency in the travel industry,” observed Daniel Craig, CEO of Vancouver-based travel consultancy Reknown, “and airlines in particular are under enormous scrutiny.”

Make that enormous fury. Twitter exploded with angry reactions to the incident, some of them dripping with genuine venom.

United’s initial response via Twitter—one that summarized the facts but was curiously oblivious to the brutality of the event—didn’t help the situation very much.

(United Airlines did not respond to Adweek’s request for comment.)

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz eventually issued a longer statement, apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers” and assuring the public the carrier is “reaching out to this passenger” to “resolve this situation.”

While United Airlines is left to manage a very messy situation, Craig said the incident shines a light on larger problems that need attention in the airline industry.

“To me the bigger issues here—when taking the video and UA statement at face value—are twofold,” the travel industry consultant said. “First, the messy situation of bumping passengers should take place before passengers are boarded. No passenger should ever be removed from their seat after boarding in order to accommodate a ‘more important’ passenger. The other issue is how the passenger was physically handled, which is a matter to be addressed with law enforcement authorities.”

Travel expert Mark Murphy adds that the viral video’s lack of context has placed too much responsibility on the carrier when, in fact, security officials—and even the passenger himself—share some responsibility, as well.

“To be fair to United, the people that removed this guy, that created that ruckus, were security at the airport. They dragged him off the plane,” said Murphy, who added: “The whole scenario could have been avoided if the man would have gotten up. He could have stepped off the plane and [gone] into the gate area and explained his situation, and they could have made a decision.”

But since that’s clearly not what happened, and now that the world has a video of a screaming coach passenger being dragged down the aisle to the airplane door, the bigger question may be: Will airlines reconsider their overbooking policies to avoid events like this altogether?

Unfortunately for passengers and the PR teams at major airlines, industry experts seriously doubt it.

“Not really,” Murphy said.

“We shouldn’t hold our breaths,” Craig added. “From my experience, overbooking is an acceptable and largely functional airline practice that rarely results in situations like this.”

Overbooking, Craig explains, not only helps airlines by filling no-show seats, “it also benefits travelers by giving them access to seats on sold-out flights, allowing airlines the flexibility to accommodate travelers when they arrive late or miss a connection, and occasionally giving passengers the option to voluntarily give up their seat in return for a travel voucher. Without these practices, if travelers missed a flight or connection they would be more likely to be charged a fee.”

Only one major airline, JetBlue, has a firm policy against overbooking. On its site, the carrier states: JetBlue does not overbook flights. However some situations, such as flight cancellations and reaccommodation, might create a similar situation.”

While that policy hasn’t always kept JetBlue from disappointing passengers, it has been a point of differentiation in an industry where the practice has remained standard operating procedure.

United likely won’t use its current social media nightmare to change a policy as entrenched as overbooking, but that hasn’t stopped consumers for suggesting it:

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.