…an airline can’t get off scot-free with this sort of heavy-handed action, which dominated the public chatter today.
United Airlines and many other airlines overbook for perfectly understandable economic reasons. It doesn’t usually cause problems, because they also offer economic incentives—for those passengers who aren’t in such an enormous hurry to get where they’re going—to change their flight. But sometimes it doesn’t work that way, and if an airline is going to drag a passenger off a flight, that airline is going to pay the price in PR, which translates to money in the end.
So the airline should have been smarter, and paid the price instead up-front:
United has confirmed that they overbooked the flight and dragged a passenger off when they didn’t get enough volunteers. United had previously offered money — up to $800 — for passengers to voluntarily get off the flight. The passengers who needed to be seated were United employees who needed to get to another destination in order to work a flight there, apparently. But when $800 wasn’t enough to get volunteers, they used a computer model to randomly select people for removal. A man seated on his flight with a ticket he paid for was then removed forcibly. Now they’re facing a social media backlash as a result…
United should have simply started offering more money. If $800 wasn’t enough, what about $1,000? If $1,000 wasn’t enough, how about $1,200? They were receiving real-time information about price setting and they weren’t responsive to it. Every passenger has a price point at which he or she is willing to disembark a given plane. For some passengers, they need to get to a funeral and the price will be high. For others, they might not even want to be making the trip and can be bought for much cheaper. United needed to find the passenger with the lowest price point. The way to do that would have been to make incremental offers until they found it. Now they’ll suffer much more through negative public relations and earned bad media. A bit of knowledge of economics might have helped them.
Oh, I think United understands economics well enough (although whoever made this particular decision might not have understood it). After all, economics is what dictates the general policy of overbooking and of compensation for those willing to change. What United doesn’t seem to understand is how much good PR is worth, and the power and ubiquity of social media.