Behind the Incident of United Express Flight 3411: Part II | Silver

Part II: Implications 

As a continuation of my previous discussions about United Express Flight 3411, Part II includes a closer examination of the incident from perspectives of both United Airlines and today’s commercial aviation industry.

The end of Part I seems to suggest an easily-reached conclusion: since clauses regarding overbooking are specified in the contract of carriage, airlines could as easily deny a passenger to board if they see a greater economic interest in selling more tickets or accommodating other last-minute top-tier frequent flyers or VIPs. As long as airlines see a smaller marginal cost to denying a “regular passenger” onboard, they are free to do so within the legal frame. And in the case of United Express Flight 3411, the “VIPs” were four “deadhead crew” who needed to fly from their base in Chicago to Louisville to serve another flight. Again, what the crew on that flight did was perfectly legal: after 9/11, for security reasons, on U.S. commercial aircrafts, crew members are given the absolute authority and failure to comply with any of their instructions could result in the intervention of law enforcement. But this time, with the rapid spread of this incident’s footage on the Internet, the marginal cost of denying David Dao skyrocketed.


Lufthansa 747-8 at Frankfurt Airport (picture taken by myself in March 2017) 

What had perhaps exacerbated United’s PR nightmare was its CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial letter to the company’s employees. The event summary he included in the letter described David Dao as “disruptive and belligerent,” and he commended the crew for following established procedures and that he “emphatically stand behind all of you.” While this openly expressed support for his employees was widely criticized, this statement did epitomize his philosophy after he took over the company in September 2015. While United merged with Continental in 2010, their internal integration had not been successful. Most notable among the many internal divisions was the separation of unions for flight attendants: because of the previous failure to reach a unified contract between pre-Continental and pre-United flight attendants, there were clear boundaries as to which aircrafts each group of flight attendants could fly: pre-Continental aircrafts were only staffed with pre-Continental flight attendants; pre-United aircrafts only had pre-United attendants working on them; both union camps got a part from the newly attained attained aircrafts in recent years after the merger. The new CEO Munoz was aware that this separation among internal workforce had prevented United from fully functioning as a single, integrated airline. As a result, he had been fighting hard for the first post-merger flight attendants contract, and he succeeded in August 2016. Besides the unification of workforce, Munoz has been pushing United toward a higher level of efficiency and consistency. Although he has fulfilled his initial promise and succeeded in ensuring more on-time departure and providing a more streamlined travel experience across the system, the drawback of this standardization and efficiency campaign, however, is employees’ lack of flexibility in dealing with unforeseen situations. In later statements, Munoz started to refer to the incident on United Express 3411 as “system failure,” and I could not agree more. When customer service is controlled and regulated in step-by-step standards, it is likely that employees follow them literally and strictly with little sense of basic human understanding.

But on a larger scale, just as airline employees are justified when they strictly follow corporate rules, today’s transportation laws similarly provide that legal protection that airlines need when it comes to customer service issues like overbooking. While there were definitely more nuances and complications to the incident of flight 3411, United Express flight 3411 did bring into question about whether laws and regulations in today’s world are just tools to consolidate the power of huge corporations. It is true that consumers have significant leverage in the market and competition among air carriers do exist. But in an oligopolistic market of U.S. airline industry, the major legal frames are, in a sense, assisting corporate executives to achieve the goal of maximizing the revenue for their shareholders. The result of this is brutal: the interests of ordinary workers and customers are routinely ignored and their concerns dodged, unless corporate profits are directly or indirectly hindered.

This time, flight 3411 did have some effect on the company’s investors, as United’s stock price saw a dramatic drop in the wake of that incident. This financial setback, along with a series of boycotting events that had started to gain some momentum, pushed the company’s executives to modify the previous explanations they had attempted to make and to change its internal procedures in dealing with situations like these. Last week, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz sent out a letter to its MileagePlus members detailing the improvements the company was rolling in place after the lesson of flight 3411, including a new policy that offers up to $10,000 for passengers involuntarily denied boarding, a $1500 no-question-asked compensation when baggage is lost, and increased flexibility on employees’ ends to offer immediate on-the-spot compensations for customer dissatisfaction and flight irregularities. We could see United’s attempts to reduce its internal bureaucracy and earn back the trust of its customers. Several days ago, David Dao’s attorney announced that he had reached a peaceful negotiation with United and simultaneously also called upon other air carriers to follow up with similar measures to United’s latest customer service standards.

But the event’s ramifications did not stop there. Oscar Munoz, along with United Airlines President Scott Kirby, were grilled at a Senate hearing on Capitol Hill last week. While the company repeatedly apologized for the mistreatment of David Dao, legislators raised more imminent problems in the U.S. airline industry and even demanded a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” The call of more legislative pressure, along with increased publicity of individual customer dissatisfaction, is gradually leading the industry to a place where the maximization of corporate profits become inextricably related to good customer service. Hopefully, flight 3411 will help signal the industry’s future with a lesser degree of legal word games and more sense of flexibility and human understanding.

Thanks for reading. Click here to access a brief description of United’s latest campaign “actions speak louder than words.”


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