United Airlines: Everything You Don't Do When Your Brand's in Trouble

Updated on April 12, 2017


On a flight leaving from O'Hare International Airport to Louisville the plane was booked to capacity (not overbooked). The problem came when United Airlines needed to move staff from O'Hare to Louisville to staff another flight.

Faced with a flight booked to capacity and 4 employees that needed moving, the manager started offering compensation to volunteers willing to give up their seats for a later flight. No one agreed at $100, $400, or $800 so United Airlines decided to remove passengers from the plane at random. One passenger offered to give up his or her seat for $1,600, but the airline dismissed this for the computer alternative.

As a private company, the airline has the right to remove anyone from the flight for any reason. This can be being rude to other passengers or the airline not having enough seats to compensate for everyone. When a passenger is refusing to be removed, the airline can have the police take over and forcefully remove the passenger.

On this flight the computer first randomly selected a couple that was willing to leave. Afterwards, the computer selected the man in the following video. He is a doctor who had patients in the morning and when his seat was called he called his lawyer. After some time police came in and forcefully removed him. The encounter was captured in the following videos.

Passenger Forcefully Removed

In the Video

The passenger is seen being dragged out of his seat, face hitting the arm rest, and being dragged across the ground by the police officers. Other passengers are rightfully outraged, but the officer continues to drag the man across the floor and off the plane.

Another video shows the doctors clinging to a pole repeating, "Just kill me. Just kill me." This was taken after the man found his way back on the flight. He had to be given medical attention and the plane emptied to clean up the blood.

still taken from a video by Doyle Davis
still taken from a video by Doyle Davis | Source

Another video shows him running down the isle claiming he has to get home after the original encounter. Blood was spewing out of his mouth and it's been speculated that is suffering from a mild to sever concussion.

It took the airline around an hour to clean off the plane and passengers on the flight promised to never fly United again.

Sorry, Not Sorry

As news of the incident hit social media, United Airline had to respond. Initially the airline explained,

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

A few hours later the official statement from twitter read:

This is an upsetting event to all of here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is working with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation - Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

Many found the statement cold, particularly the "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers," and it did little to quell the anger. People are asking for a formal apology and recognition that the airline was in the wrong.

People drew comparisons to the social snafu by Pepsi earlier this week as they released a tone deaf commercial that made light of activism. They quickly noted that while Pepsi had acknowledged wrongdoing and removed the commercial, United Airlines seemed to be committing to the idea that they had not done anything wrong.

Someone Decided to Fix United's Apology

someone takes the liberty to fix United Airline's apology
someone takes the liberty to fix United Airline's apology | Source

Chicago PD

It's worth noting that the men dragging the doctor in the video work for the Chicago PD, not United Airlines.

After refusing to answer questions, United redirected press to the Chicago PD for a comment. The Chicago PD told them to reach out to the Chicago Department of Aviation and they directed press to the TSA. The TSA in turn told them to reach out to the Chicago PD for a comment.

While the Chicago PD later went on to claim that the doctor had fallen, one of the men from the video was place on leave while they reviewed the situation.

Overbooking on Airlines

Many airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. This is because some people don't show up for the flight and the seat is moving anyway so it's a safety precaution for airlines. It's something most airlines practice and it's legal.

When too many people show up for a flight the airline can't bring everyone. This means that the passengers moved to another flight have to be compensated monetarily.

The delimitation between voluntary and involuntary removal is important. With voluntary removal the staff explains the situation to the cabin and offer monetary compensation. In this case the staff offered to compensate the price of the ticket and up to $800. They start with a low number ($100) and increase until enough people are willing to leave. On this flight no one took the offer.

Afterwards the airline decided to use a computer to pick 'random' passengers to kick off the flight. This is considered involuntary removal and there are specific laws that go with this. If an airline does not have any volunteers they have to compensate the passenger for a specific amount, 400% of the value of the ticket up to $1300 when the passenger has to wait more than 2 hours for the next flight. It's in the airline's best interest to find volunteers as this means they don't have to compensate as much money.

When no one volunteers airlines use computers to find passengers to remove. This system is said to be 'random' but in practice they find pick out the passengers who paid the least for a ticket as they would have to compensate them at a lower rate. This also means that those who bought the ticket first, months in advance when the prices were lower, have a higher chance of being kicked off as it would save the airline money.

The compensation can come in the form of cash or vouchers that can only be used at that one airline and expire after a year. Sometimes the vouchers come in incremental values and cannot be stacked together. If one is not a frequent flier it is best to get money instead of vouchers as they might not be of much use.

This is all legal and a common practice in airlines.

What United Should Have Done

It would have been in United Airline's best interest to continue bidding after they reached $800. They had offers to leave the plane at $1600 and while this is above the limit they are legally required to compensate it would have prevented the assault.

Another fault in United Airline's action was the way in which they handled the repercussions. Even after the initial statement from the CEO of the company on twitter, a former CEO of United Continental called the doctor 'immature' and this was not a criticism many took lightly.

Possibly the final nail in the coffin, CEO of United Airlines Oscar Munoz sent out an email to employees calling the passenger, "disruptive and belligerent." This was seen as bad faith among those following the situation as the airline was seen as continuing to divert blame from themselves. Others have noted that facts do not evolve, they exists as they are.

United Airline email
United Airline email | Source
United Airlines email
United Airlines email | Source
United Airlines email
United Airlines email | Source

Email Text

The email reads as follows:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night abroad United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I've included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it came necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations likes this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treated our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.


Summary of Flight 3411

  • On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United's gate agents were approached by crew members that were told they needed to board the flight.
  • We sought volunteers and then followed our insultera detail of boarding process (including offering up to $1000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions
  • He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
  • Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
  • Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically remove him from the flight s he contend to resits - running back onto the aircraft in defiance of bother our crew and security officials.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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    • Luculent profile imageAUTHOR

      Cyril Figgis 

      3 years ago from New York

      @Kathleen I don't think UA has explained why they waited until now to move the employees, but it definitely comes of as unprofessional. Others have pointed out that they could have put the employees on a bus to Louisville if they didn't have any room on the plane and it would have saved them a lot of trouble.

      Hopefully UA learns from this and don't make the same mistakes again

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      One question: Why didn't the airline know until the last minute that these crew members needed to get on this flight? Sounds like the problem began with the airline being unprepared for a normal situation.


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