Drag-Gate Fallout

April 14, 2017

First it was legging-gate, now it’s drag-gate. United Airlines can’t seem to get a break in the public relations department, some of it deserved, some not.

The recent brouhaha started when, on short notice, United (actually, Republic Airlines operating as United Express) needed to get a crew of four to Louisville to operate another flight. Apparently, it was such short notice that passengers on the Chicago O’Hare-Louisville flight had already boarded. Since the flight was full, the airline asked for four passengers to deplane, offering them incentives. No one took the incentives. So then the airline ORDERED four passengers to deplane, selected by a computer algorithm – probably based on several criteria such as not frequent fliers, latest check-in, perhaps some other factor. Three of the passengers complied. One, a doctor who claimed to have patients requiring treatment in Louisville, did not.

If calmer heads had prevailed, the entire situation could have been nipped in the bud when this passenger declined to deplane. Since three passengers had already vacated their seats, only one more seat was needed to accommodate the remaining deadheading crewmember. That seat could have been in the cockpit, on the jumpseat.

When I was a pilot for United, several times I surrendered my company-paid deadhead seat and relocated to the cockpit to accommodate paying passengers. It was less comfortable, and food and beverage service was less frequent, but I considered it “selling tickets”, i.e., creating goodwill among the passenger who got to fly. In this particular case, if the cockpit jumpseat had already been taken, it would have been taken by someone with lower priority than a pilot traveling on company business and the existing jumpseater would have had to deplane. We don’t know if the jumpseat was available, or if the cockpit crew even knew of the situation that was developing in the cabin.

Now the plot thickens when law enforcement is called to force the uncooperative passenger to leave. That is, literally, using a nuclear weapon to swat a fly. The passenger hadn’t assaulted anyone, hadn’t been abusive, simply was insisting that the airline provide the transportation he had purchased. The law enforcement officer ordered the passenger to deplane and he refused. That was the passenger’s big mistake. As we’ve seen from numerous incidents over the past several years, when a police officer orders you to do something, you do it. If it was an illegal order, you sue over it and get a bit richer. But failing to comply with law enforcement can result in serious, sometimes fatal, consequences.

At this point it gets really ugly when the police drag the passenger out, not even raising the arm rest when they remove him from his seat, effectively keel-hauling him to the aisle. The passenger is injured, and bleeds inside the airplane. The entire scene is witnessed by all the passengers and videotaped by several. The video goes viral, and it’s all the news channels can talk about the next day.

What else could United/Republic have done? Well, they could have provided ground transportation to the four deplaning passengers, along with some form of cash incentive, for a four-hour trip to Louisville. Once, as a passenger, I sat in a van for five hours when my airline flight landed short of the destination due to weather and the airline accommodated those of us who really wanted to get there as soon as possible.

Some pundits have posited that the flight crew should have used ground transportation. The requirements of FAR 117 specify that the time in transportation to a flight assignment count as duty time, and the crew could have possibly exceeded their allowable time for the subsequent flight if this option had been used. We don’t know the particulars of the deadheading flight crew.

The airline could have chartered a business jet for the short flight. It would have been expensive, but when I was a new-hire in 1978 I heard that United would occasionally do this. And a Learjet flight is a lot less expensive than what United now faces!

United’s (and Republic’s) woes are not going to abate any time soon. Assuaging the doctor who was dragged off the flight won’t come cheap. He was embarrassed, humiliated, and injured. He’s going to find the toughest hard-ass lawyer he can get. And it is likely that some of the passengers who witnessed the event will plan legal actions because they were traumatized.

But wait – it gets even better. After the doctor was removed, the flight operated. With blood in the aisle. Big problem. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises airlines to “Treat all body fluids (such as diarrhea, vomit, or blood) like they are infectious”. And it’s not just CDC that’s coming after Republic. The Operational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) “requires that equipment and surfaces be cleaned and disinfected after contact with blood”. Was this disinfecting performed, and, if so, was it done using a Universal Precaution Kit?

United didn’t help itself with their feeble attempts to defuse the fallout, and the CEO’s message to employees was widely misinterpreted and viewed as totally tone-deaf. Since this flight originated at a major United hub, it might have been a United Customer Service Representative (CSR) involved, or it might have been a CSR from Republic. In all honesty, we don’t even know if any of the people who screwed up so badly were United employees, since this was a United Express flight. Yes, the check-in is on the United website, and it says United on the side of the airplane, but the CSRs, pilots and flight attendants are not United employees. They are hired and trained by some other entity, in this case Republic. And the airport law enforcement personnel were not United employees.

Perhaps one good thing to come out of this whole mess is that airlines – all of them – will revisit the process of overbooking flights.