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What Happens to Passengers After an Incident Goes Viral?

What Happens to Passengers After an Incident Goes Viral?
Joe Cortez

After a social media post goes viral and accusations are thrown, how should airlines handle situations concerning passengers? In a FlyerTalk exclusive, one couple speaks out about their experience with the United Airlines’ Passenger Incident Review Committee – and why they say it may be an unfair process.

When an incident takes place aboard a consumer aircraft, it often makes headlines for unflattering reasons. One visible example may be that of Dr. David Dao, flying aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 in 2017. After refusing to give up his seat, security guards forcefully dragged him off the aircraft, leading to investigations with “a sense of urgency” and promises of change.

But after the cameras stop and social media quits buzzing, what happens between United Airlines and those passengers? They face the United Passenger Incident Committee which determines whether “disruptive” passengers can fly the Chicago-based carrier in the future.

This was the process professors Jessie Au and M.G. Wientjes faced after their recent incident aboard a United flight. To better understand the story and reaction from all sides, we reached out to the professors, United Airlines and the United Master Executive Council of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) to learn what happens during and after a passenger-involved incident.

The Seating Incident Aboard United 1448

On September 13, 2019, FlyerTalk published the stories of married couple, Jessie Au, 68, and her husband M.G. (“Guill”) Wientjes, 66: two retired Ohio State University professors who accused United employees of unfairly and forcibly removing them from their flight.

Both Drs. Au and Wientjes were passengers aboard United Flight 1448 on June 24, 2019, flying back from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) where they attended a series of meetings in Washington, D.C. to seek research grants.

According to Wientjes, he was already sitting in his seat when a flight attendant informed him that another passenger was assigned to the same seat. Wientjes says he had a boarding pass for the seat and gave it to the flight attendant but, at some point, she dropped it. Then she accused Wientjes of never giving it to her in the first place.

When another passenger found the dropped boarding pass and handed it to Wientjes and Au, Au says she tried to get the flight attendant’s attention. “We were concerned that the [flight attendant and gate agent] would use the ‘missing boarding pass’ as the excuse to remove us,” Dr. Au told FlyerTalk in an exclusive interview. “Because they would not respond to our verbal communications, we tapped the elbow [of the flight attendant].

According to the professors, this attempt to get the flight attendant’s attention ultimately lead to their removal from the aircraft, with the flight attendant allegedly declaring: “Don’t touch me!” and “I’m going to kick you off the plane.”

“We did not think tapping is prohibited as I usually sit in the aisle seats and get tapped by UA flight attendants lots of times–for example, to pass along the trash,” said Au. However, the captain requested that they deplane. They then willingly left the aircraft without further incident. However, their trouble with United was only beginning.

The United Passenger Incident Committee

Hours later, Dr. Wientjes received a letter from the United Passenger Incident Committee, the group responsible for investigating passenger-involved incidents aboard aircraft.

According to the AFA website, the Passenger Incident Review Committee, or PIRC, was founded in 2007 to closely investigate instances where flyers act or are accused of acting, out of line. The group is defined as “a cross-divisional team that includes Director level Leadership from Inflight Services, Corporate Security, Corporate Legal, and Airport Operations. It also includes Investigators assigned to each division.”

For an incident to be referred to the PIRC, a “level two” incident must take place against a flight attendant. A level two incident must include “an actual physical assault.” This may include “pushing and shoving to inappropriate touching and sexual misconduct against an employee.”

Because Dr. Au touched a flight attendant, their situation was escalated to the PIRC. In a letter from United’s PIRC to Dr. Wientjes obtained by FlyerTalk, they were asked to submit their “version of what occurred in this incident” within 96 hours of receiving the letter. They were also asked to provide their contact information, a summary of the incident and names of witnesses.

“We submitted our response within the 96-hour deadline,” Dr. Au told FlyerTalk. “At least 6 [United] crew members and PIRC saw our boarding passes and therefore should have known we were in our assigned seats and did not deserve to be called liars and threatened by the flight attendant.”

On August 29, 2019–nearly two months after the original incident–Dr. Wientjes received a decision letter from United about their fate. Wientjes shared the letter with FlyerTalk: United concluded that Au and Wientjes were at fault and that their investigation “revealed that [they] were argumentative and physically threatening to one of our customer service agents and refused to comply with crew instructions.

“Because we regard this as a serious incident, we are writing this letter to remind you of our policy and to let you know that we cannot tolerate such conduct,” the letter continues. “Again, we have a duty to customers and employees to provide an environment that is free from physical risk.” However, the airline did not ban the couple from flying United in the future.

“At United, we hold ourselves to the highest standard of professionalism,” reads a statement by United provided to FlyerTalk. “Following this issue [involving Drs. Au and Wientjes], we reached out to our customers and team to find out what happened.” United did not comment on the PIRC investigation or any resolution to the situation.

FlyerTalk also reached out to the AFA to learn more about the PIRC process, including at what point a flight attendant can request passenger removal from a flight. As of press time, they did not provide a response to our requests for comment.

United and the “Friendly Skies?”

After the 2017 incident involving Dr. Dao, United promptly launched an investigation into the incident and promptly issued a “review and action report” detailing what happened on the aircraft and what would change. One change the document promised was an improvement on how flight attendants work with flyers during on-aircraft incidents. Under the section titled “United Policy Changes Made or Forthcoming” is the promise that “United will not require customers already seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk.”

United also announced the launch of an “in the moment” app, designed to help flight attendants “resolve customer service issues in the moment.” The only details provided by United outlined that the app could be used to “compensate customers proactively…when a disservice occurs.”

Despite this, more unhappy consumers are flying United, noted by the number of complaints referred to the U.S. Department of Transportation. As published in the DOT September 2019 Air Traffic Consumer Report, United received 239 complaints in July of this year, second only to American Airlines. Among those complaints, 24 were regarding reservations, ticketing or boarding issues; 27 were based on customer service experiences; two were based on alleged discrimination. For comparison purposes: the DOT received 23 complaints about American Airlines regarding reservations, ticketing, or boarding issues; 34 complaints about customer service; and four complaints alleging discrimination.

What to Do After an Airline Incident (and How to Avoid One)

In retrospect, Dr. Au said there were other steps she could have taken to resolve the situation. “There was another flight attendant who was very friendly (most are) and we had asked her to de-escalate the situation,” Dr. Au told FlyerTalk. “Even though she was not successful, we think the situation would have a different outcome if we went to her sooner.” Au and Wientjes also attempted to call United’s customer care line for help. They did not get assistance from the phone call.

As a result of their experience, Dr. Au and her husband say they will avoid flying United in the future. Although they have two more trips with the carrier, they plan on flying with other carriers unless business policies force them to fly with United. They also plan on filing a complaint with the DOT, “as a means to make [United] accountable and the PIRC process more transparent,” says Dr. Au.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some suggestions to resolve a situation without escalation.

  • Keep a digital copy of boarding passes: In this situation, Dr. Au said a United flight attendant took her boarding pass. “Always get a paper boarding pass or take a snapshot of the electronic boarding pass to have a record of your seat assignment,” she told FlyerTalk. Even a digital ticket serves as record of a seat assignment.
  • Respect personal space: According to workplace consultants CPI, one of the top de-escalation tips is to respect personal space. “By training ourselves to not immediately become confrontational when challenged, and choosing instead to respect personal space, we create the potential for nonviolent crisis prevention and reduce the risk of escalation,” Emily Eilers writes on the CPI blog.
  • Chose demands wisely: Again, CPI writer Emily Eilers cautions everyone to choose their wants wisely, even during a confrontation. Making a sacrifice now can result in a positive solution for everyone. “Would exhibiting a bit of flexibility head off an altercation, or does insisting on something lay the groundwork for a power struggle?” writes Eilers. “Keep your eyes on the big picture—remember to see the individual behind the challenging behavior.”
View Comments (13)

13 Comments

  1. justpassinthru

    September 24, 2019 at 7:44 am

    The article doesn’t make complete sense – Definitely feels like I don’t have all the information and making any determination on my part wouldn’t be fair. From the couples perspective they certainly have the right to fly other airlines…and the company may not want them to fly theirs…that may be the best resolution for the long term.

  2. Dublin_rfk

    September 24, 2019 at 8:34 am

    Just what the customer service staff need! More training to recognize that a customer is not always right and more ways to discipline said employees if they don’t follow each and every step in the correct order and with a smile.
    Sometime airlines need to just tell the customer to take their business somewhere else.

  3. MitchR

    September 25, 2019 at 5:05 am

    I avoid United like the plague. The worst incident was after a missed connection. My flight landed at Dulles after my connecting flight left. They wouldn’t offer me compensation because it was due to “weather” so I asked for my luggage so that I could take a cab to a hotel. They told me that the bag had made the connection (even though my flight landed after the connecting flight had taken off). I asked for a supervisor and they began searching for my bag. I fell asleep on a bench only to be awoken at 1 am by the baggage attendant saying “her’s your f*cking bag* and throwing it at me. Wasn’t my bag. I flew on the next morning with no bag. They located it two days later, in Dulles.

  4. alexmyboy

    September 25, 2019 at 5:32 am

    the airline is at fault, can you people get that thru your head?

  5. bagwell

    September 25, 2019 at 6:08 am

    why are we only hearing the Au’s side of this!!!!!!???

    I’m ASSUMING United interviewed other passengers on the the flight (along with crew) to make their decision on the incident.

    Yes yes, I know all websites want clickbait headlines – but why not get BOTH SIDES OF THE STORY????? I want the truth, not just click-bait.

  6. arcticflier

    September 25, 2019 at 6:14 am

    A great example of why everyone should wear a bodycam 24/7.

  7. mbgaskins

    September 25, 2019 at 7:11 am

    Just another example of an over-entitled flight attendant who overreacted and ESCALATED a situation. One sees this all the time anytime you put unbridled power into the hands of small people.

    Some day the airline is going to be sued for their conduct.

    This is easy to resolve with the other passenger witnesses. It would be fun to get those names and have the writer interview them. Probably take a lawsuit and subpoena to get the airline to issue that info, however.

  8. John Aldeborgh

    September 25, 2019 at 7:27 am

    As someone with more than 4.8M BIS miles on United, I can only say there’s a lot of data missing from this article. This couple did something wrong/disruptive to inflame this situation, it’s takes two to have a fight. As I read this article it feels like the couple did nothing, they’re totally innocent, I do not believe this is accurate, I’ve been on too many United flights over the last 30+ years. The fact that this couple is continuing to press the incident to the DOT and others clearly shows they are vindictive and suffer from enormous egos. Let it go and roll with the punches as we all must do. Also, I hope they stop flying United, for everyones sake, there is such a thing a “bad customers”.

  9. NonnaGoes

    September 25, 2019 at 11:26 am

    Does anyone else find it interesting that in this case, as in the famous case of breaking a 60something doctor’s nose, the person accused of aggression was an elderly Asian professional?

    While I am not Asian, I know many who meet that description. They are, uniformly, soft spoken and gracious. Given the atmosphere in this country, I wouldn’t find it strange if there were racism involved.

  10. jennj99738

    September 25, 2019 at 4:55 pm

    bagwell, it appears you may have merely skimmed the article because it provides UA’s response to FT several times but that UA failed to respond to specific questions.

    ““At United, we hold ourselves to the highest standard of professionalism,” reads a statement by United provided to FlyerTalk. “Following this issue [involving Drs. Au and Wientjes], we reached out to our customers and team to find out what happened.” United did not comment on the PIRC investigation or any resolution to the situation.

    FlyerTalk also reached out to the AFA to learn more about the PIRC process, including at what point a flight attendant can request passenger removal from a flight. As of press time, they did not provide a response to our requests for comment.””

  11. FlyGUYClipper

    September 25, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    United is the problem here… They need to train themselves [Their Company] on “How To Hire The Right Employees”.

    I see it and hear it all the time. I was sitting at the Delta gate area at MSY [which UA shares with DL] and the gate agent at UA was stridently shouting over the PA system in the terminal “You need to be on my airplane now and if your bag is over its limit your going to get charged $35”.

    These people have no business speaking customers [traveling public] working for an airline. UA is consistently inconsistent.

  12. mhrb

    September 26, 2019 at 9:14 am

    “I’m ASSUMING United interviewed other passengers on the the flight (along with crew) to make their decision on the incident.”

    lol. You’re new here aren’t you?

  13. not2017

    September 29, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    And why should I fly United?

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