United’s booting of passenger wasn’t just a PR disaster, it also made no money sense

A viral video of a screaming passenger being dragged off a United flight Sunday by police raises a question: Was it even necessary to kick passengers off the flight to accommodate four airline employees who needed transportation?

The answer is no, passenger advocates say.

The airlines have agreements with one another to give discounts to employees of other carriers based on the distance flown. It’s a huge discount from usual fares.

For example, United could have sent its employees by taxi about an hour across Chicago from O’Hare airport to Midway airport and put them on a Southwest flight to Louisville, Kentucky, where they were needed Monday.

The top fare for the Southwest flight between Chicago and Louisville is $243, so under the airlines’ agreement, four United employees could have flown for slightly more than $100 combined with the discount. Southwest offers three nonstop flights from Midway to Louisville on Sundays. The trip takes about an hour.

Or the United employees could have taken one of four Sunday nonstop flights on American Airlines from O’Hare to Louisville. Undiscounted fares on the route are $221 in the main cabin and $321 in first class.

By contrast, United was offering each of the four passengers as much as $800 in compensation and a hotel room to give up their seats for the employees.

Southwest, United, Delta and American wouldn’t comment on whether they use other carriers for “deadheading” employees rather than bumping paying passengers off their own flights.

Charlie Leocha, chairman and founder of Travelers United, an airline-passenger advocacy group, said there were “a thousand and one” ways United could have handled the situation.

“They can fly them out on any other airline,” said Leocha, who frequently testifies before Congress on airline passenger rights. “It’s a real failure of airline management from start to finish on this.”

According to news reports, airline employees asked for four volunteers to give up their seats after passengers had boarded the plane in return for a $400 travel voucher. When no one volunteered, the voucher offer was doubled to $800, but there were still no takers.

Four passengers were then randomly selected by computer to be bumped from the flight. Three of them complied, but one did not. Chicago Aviation Department police forcibly removed the man from the plane as other passengers looked on in disbelief.

In a statement, United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for the incident.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

Last month, Munoz, a former railroad executive, was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by PRWeek.

Travel + Leisure magazine ranked United among the nine worst airlines in the world for customer service in 2016.

Sunday’s incident was the second time in recent weeks that United had generated embarrassing headlines. Last month, two young women wearing leggings were denied boarding on a United flight after being told their apparel did not meet the dress code for employees or family members traveling with free passes.

Other service problems in recent months have tested passenger patience.

Delta canceled more than 2,000 flights over three days last August after a power outage brought down its reservations system. In July, Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights over five days because of a similar outage.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis