The newest corporate public relations blunder now belongs to United Continental Airlines (United). I am sure that Pepsi is very happy to pass the hat onto another corporate citizen.
It is ‘commonly known’, in some circles, that airlines will oversell their flights to ensure that they are full at time of departure. United follows the same practice. This practice came to a head for a flight from Chicago to Louisville on April 10th. United staff asked for 4 people to voluntarily give up their seats to accommodate the airline. 3 people volunteered while the 4th person was violently removed from their seat. From a memo off the desk of the CEO of United, Oscar Munoz, the person was ‘re-accommodated’.
Airlines commonly overbook their flights, for multiple reasons. According to the US Department of Transportation, in 2016, less than 1 in 10,000 were involuntarily bumped from the major US airlines. In 2016, this happened to United passengers at a rate of 0.43 per 10,000. It happened on American Airlines at a rate of 0.64 and at Southwest Airlines to 0.99 persons per 10,000.
Why Did It Happen
Overbooking happens for a number of reasons. None, however, can explain the events that occurred.
Resource Allocation: A flight leaving from Louisville had 4 members of its flight crew in Chicago. This is a reason why 4 seats were required. Did United not have any flight crews in Louisville that they could have used? Are their flight crews centrally located in certain locations or based off flight schedule and needs? Overall, did the schedule of the flight crews have then in the correct place?
Leadership: The CEO of United, Oscar Munoz, sent out a memo to staff after the event blaming the passenger for actions which is not seen in any of the footage that was captured. The CEO mention in the memo that the passenger was violent and belligerent. A properly written memo could have helped the situation but instead, gas was poured on the fire. If an employee of mine treats a customer that way, I would take ownership of the situation right away. It can be assumed that staff were not properly trained. That is a responsibility of the CEO. I understand that it was Chicago Airport Police that removed the person but United staff should have been trained on various methods to help get passengers to volunterily give up their seat. I have seen it happen effectively.
KPIs: United is a publicly traded company. Shareholders are constantly looking at the numbers to see how their investment is performing. Revenue per Available Seat and Passenger Miles Flown are key indicators on the health of an airline. Why does this create overbooking? If there is no passenger in the seat, the miles flown per passenger are negatively affected. When travelling, I have waited more than once for a fellow passenger to board the place. By overbooking, airlines are ensuring that there is a person in every seat.
Sensitivity: Consumers are rarely loyal to a certain airline. They will change airlines to save $5. If you don’t have any loyalty to an airline or are constantly purchasing the cheapest flight possible, you are increasing your chance of getting bumped out of your seat.
Legality: Airlines are allowed to overbook their flights and they are also ALLOWED to remove someone from a plane. In the purchasing contracts of Canadian airlines, however, it does not state how a person could be removed from the plane. Based on this assumption, the acts which happened on United are allowed and legal.
As you can imagine, the reaction from the Internet, specifically Twitter, was very fast. Videos of the event were online hours after the event occurred. It is possible that videos were posted even before the plane departed Chicago.
Stock Market Reaction
Shareholders of United firstly saw the event in a positive light by bidding up the price of the stock. When reading the headlines, the focus was most probably on the fact that United was overbooking their flights. A great problem for business is to have too many customers. As I am writing this the day after the event, United’s stock price has already decreased by 4%.
Operating in the airline industry is not an easy task. There is a high capital investment along with the fact that one of your largest costs, jet fuel and airport fees, are largely controlled by third parties. Overbooking of flights is not something that will stop in the near future. Airlines have lost their sensitivity to consumer demands and views…mostly because consumers have trained them to be that way. Even after dragging a bleeding and paying customer off one of their planes, United is still flying today and will for some time.
Did you know that airlines commonly overbook their flights? If you were a CEO of airlines, would you look at stopping the overbooking of flights? How would you do it so your financials are not compromised?
Kevin MacDonald is a Business Consultant at L6S Business Consulting (www.l6sbc.ca). L6S offers services in management consulting, Controller and CFO contracting, and lean management with either project work or teaching/mentoring of staff. Kevin has his CMA accounting designation along with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma.
Kevin is active in the community by volunteering for the South Edmonton Business Assocation, the Fringe Festival, Goodwill Industries of Alberta and donates blood at the Canadian Blood Services.