Dr. Dao’s Loss Was Our Gain

The saga of former United Airlines customer Dr. David Dao is getting more and more expensive for the airline. According to the Daily Mail, he didn’t get home with all his teeth or his baggage. It seems that although United’s O’Hare Airport staff had time to order Dao beaten, which caused the loss of two teeth, they didn’t have time to take his luggage off the plane before it departed.

Maybe the baggage compartment isn’t subject to being oversold.

After the incident United CEO Oscar Munoz evidently decided to emulate Jim Carrey in the movie “Liar, Liar” and kick his own a**. He issued a number of news releases and endured a series of interviews that only served to illustrate the truth of the old public relations adage: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

First Munoz contended the 69–year–old doctor was “belligerent.” Then Bloomberg reports that Munoz said no United employees would lose their job or be punished in the wake of the incident. “It was a system failure across various areas, so there was never a consideration for firing an employee or anyone around it,” he explained.

Although accurate, the statement doesn’t begin to address all of United’s legal problems. Dao was bumped because of what was termed at the time an “oversold” condition. The contract United customers enter into and never read when they buy a ticket addresses “denied boarding” on an oversold flight. United’s enormous liability problem is Dao wasn’t denied boarding; he was boarded and seated on the aircraft, so the contract provisions no longer applied.

After the initial death–by–streaming the video caused, United clarified the situation. Their particularly aggressive brand of musical chairs wasn’t caused by overbooking. United needed to move a crew of four to Louisville for a flight the next day and Dao was in the fourth seat.

Now there are many examples of passengers being beaten during their commute. An entire train was hijacked in Oakland just this week. But Dao may be the first person in history who was beaten so someone else could commute.

What many people don’t know about the airline business is many, if not most, of their cabin crews don’t live near the airports where they’re assigned. Crews flying out of Louisville may choose to live in a happenin’ city like Chicago, since the airborne commute is free. Dao’s teeth–rattling adventure could well have been the result of a lifestyle choice by the cabin crew in question. A tidbit that will cost even more if the case goes to trial.

The airline’s “system failure” was a pennywise–and–pound–foolish approach to overbooking. United supports the free market when it helps to make money, but dislikes the market when it costs money.

United began the market–based bidding process by offering $400 to passengers, but there were no takers. Then United offered $800. When that didn’t work the bidding was abruptly closed.

The supervisor hadn’t even gone up to the $1,350 maximum compensation required by law when he awarded Dao a free trip to Fist City.

And this is where the doctor’s loss becomes our gain.

Delta Airlines saw the post–knockout $1.4 billion drop in United’s stock price and decided to expand its auction for oversold seats. The Daily Caller reports Delta gate agents can now offer up to $2,000 in compensation and ground supervisors can go up to $9,950.

Now United is following Delta’s lead.

I’m a very satisfied Premier 1K flyer with United and today I received an email acknowledgement from Munoz that admits, “Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

To show Dr. Dao didn’t bleed in vain, in the future United “will increase incentives for voluntary rebooking up to $10,000.” Now the only violence in the cabin during an overbooked event will be when passengers didn’t think a volunteer held out for enough money and reduced compensation for the rest of the volunteers.

Even better, United now has a “no–questions–asked” $1,500 reimbursement policy for misplaced baggage. So if Dr. Dao’s new dentures are lost during a future flight he won’t have to supply the baggage supervisor with a cast of his teeth.

This is the most customer–oriented policy change that I can remember in the airline industry and we owe it all to Dr. Dao. I would almost suggest we start a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the good doctor’s physical therapy and PTSD sessions to demonstrate our gratitude.

But something tells me that after either the settlement talks or the trial concludes, Dr. Dao will have so much money he won’t be participating in any seat auctions regardless of how high the bidding goes.

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United Airlines Package Tours Now Include Hospitalization!

I’m old enough to remember when the United Airlines slogan was: “Fly the Friendly Skies of United.” Now, according to Twitter wag GoodJuJu, the new motto is: “Our Service Will Knock You Out!”

It’s a cinch the passengers on United Express Flight 3411 got more than they bargained for — I knew United was upgrading seating and entertainment on those annoying puddle–jumper jets, but that floor show looked like a Trump rally!

CEO Oscar Munoz’ response to the incident was so inept he may as well have let the cop who cold–cocked the passenger handle the news conferences. At least that guy had some impact. The only mistake Munoz didn’t make was announcing that in the future all United passengers will be required to turn their cell phones off when they get a boarding pass.

Munoz began Unitedsplaining by blaming 69–year–old Dr. David Dao for all the trouble, claiming he was “belligerent.”

Alternate motto: If You Don’t Need a Wheelchair Before You Board, You May Need One After!

As a PR person I could have told Munoz he was going to have trouble selling that when Dr. Dao was an elderly, paid up, sober and seated passenger who just wanted to go home. On Monday a man claiming to be a United Express pilot called the Rush Limbaugh Show and, displaying the same concern for the paying customer that Munoz has, said, “Flying is a privilege.”

For pilots, yes. For passengers, no.

Flying for a passenger is a commercial transaction; not a boon bestowed on an unworthy recipient. In this case the good doctor’s “privilege” was revoked for because plane was overbooked.

Overbooking occurs when the airline sells the same seat more than once. The practice received official approval back when the Civil Aeronautics Board regulated airlines. (You can only sell a single item to multiple buyers when the government approves — think chair in a VA hospital waiting room — otherwise you go to jail.)

Then airlines lost money when a passenger called to make a reservation and didn’t show up, because the booked seat remained empty. This may be hard for modern consumers to believe, but back in those days a passenger would make a reservation and get a seat assignment WITHOUT PAYING A DIME! If he changed his mind at the last minute the airline lost money.

Even if the spontaneous passenger paid before changing his mind, it was easy to get a refund and fly another time.

Meanwhile, the market changed but government hasn’t. Why does that sound familiar? Passengers now pay extra to make a reservation on the phone, many tickets are non–refundable and the ones are refundable have a $250 change fee, plus added fare if the new flight is more expensive.

Even if overbooking was justifiable, United’s implementation wasn’t. Like many corporations United supports the free market when it helps make money, but dislikes the market when it costs money.

Airlines raise prices as flight times approach because the few remaining seats are more valuable, but it wants to put a lid on prices when it needs to buy the seats back. Here United needed four seats and it began the bidding at $400 and a free hotel room with meal vouchers, if the passengers gave up their seats.

That was too low, so the offer was increased to $800.

Still no takers, but instead of going up to $1,200 to see if that would bring demand in line with supply, the airline bypassed the market and decided to use force.

That money–saving decision that cost United $1.4 billion in stock valuation after the public became aware of the incident.

Overbooking, like free checked bags, is a relic of the past. When fans don’t show up for football games the team loses out on parking and concession revenue, but even rapacious Dan Snyder doesn’t overbook Redskins’ games.

If overbooking is allowed to continue it should be as a percentage of the load factor and airlines should be required to keep bidding until passengers relinquish their seats voluntarily, not at gunpoint.

The load factor for domestic flights has been on a steady climb since 2002, when it was 70.4 percent. So far in 2017 the load factor is 84.6 percent. Jet fuel prices are down and ticket sales are up. It’s a wonder United has any frustrations to take out on passengers.

I’ve flown United since it was called Continental. It’s my airline of choice and my frequent flyer level is so high, there’s no chance of me being bumped. But I will say this: In the future if I were a physician, I’d think twice before answering when a flight attendant asks, “Is there a doctor on board?”