PHOTO: United keeps both feet firmly in hot water. (Photo via Flickr/Tomas Del Coro)
United Airlines hardly needs another controversy at the moment. But it’s been that kind of week.
The Los Angeles Times’ David Lazarus spoke with Geoff Fearns, someone who also had a purportedly contentious run-in with United staff – one that featured a threat to be handcuffed had he not left the plane voluntarily.
By now every last one of you have heard of Kentucky physician David Dao and have seen how he was removed from a United flight.
It has caused an overwhelming outpouring of outrage aimed at the airline, sentiment that extends well beyond this continent.
But now there is another story that United will have to contend with, and that is the shocking anecdote told by the president of Irvine’s TriPacific Capital Advisors.
As told to Lazarus, 59-year-old Fearns said that he was in Hawaii last week for business but had to come back early so purchased a first-class ticket at about $1,000.
Fearns states that he made it all the way to his seat, and even managed to get some sips of orange juice in before things started to unravel in a spectacular fashion.
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According to Fearns, he was approached at his seat by a United employee who mandated he depart the airplane.
“They said the flight was overfull,” the explanation Fearns said he was given.
He continues, painting a scenario that would enrage any consumer: “That’s when they told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute. They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me.”
TravelPulse’s Rich Thomaselli reminds that, thanks to the Contract Of Carriage, you can indeed get bumped by an airline and have to disembark when told.
But, as Thomaselli explains, it just doesn’t happen with regularity: “As well-known as it might be, however, it’s a rarity in a general sense and extremely rare to be involuntarily bumped.”
Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang explains airlines have an actual hierarchy of who they will bump from a flight.
After asking for volunteers, airlines will run down the list supplied by the Contract of Carriage, via Zhang: “the contract states that the airline's decision is based on a passenger's frequent flyer status, the layout of his or her itinerary (whether the passenger has a connecting flight), the fare class of the ticket, and the time he or she checked into the flight.”
And this is an important fact as Fearns ran up against a wall many of us never consider: Some passengers are just more valuable to the airline.
Fearns continues: “I understand you might bump people because a flight is full. But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”
United has been running a classic playbook that works when social media doesn’t factor in.
And you see this play out in Fearns case, where there isn’t nearly as much uproar as there is for Dao’s pre-flight ordeal.
United instead downgraded Fearns to economy class and sat him in the middle seat, between a fighting couple.
Fearns actually had to email a grievance once he was home in order for United to offer to refund the cost of the difference between first and economy.
A $500 credit was also offered as well as what seems to have been a canned response from the airline, via the LA Times: “Despite the negative experience, we hope to have your continued support. Your business is especially important to us and we'll do our utmost to make your future contacts with United satisfactory in every respect.”
And this is the play that has worked for decades. But, as United is quickly discovering, how you treat your customers can quickly turn into the greatest airline story of the year.