To close the year, FlyerTalk is looking back at four major incidents that made headlines in 2017, and how aviation has changed as a result. In this story, we look back at the incident aboard United Flight 3411.
United Flight 3411, departing Sunday, April 9, 2017, with regularly scheduled service from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Louisville International Airport (SDF), was supposed to be an uneventful flight. As it often happens on regional flights, the evening run became overbooked, leading gate agents to start offering incentives for flyers to change their plans.
But a rather peculiar thing happened: nobody accepted the incentives. For a $400 travel voucher, nobody took the award. At $600, flyers kept boarding. Even when it increased to $800, everyone kept to their seats. This forced United to do something very rare: involuntarily deny passengers boarding. Using an automated computer program, four were selected randomly. Two left willingly, but one – Dr. David Dao – refused.
Four guards boarded the aircraft and removed Dao by force. The incident was caught on multiple cameras and sent to the internet immediately – where they went viral. United went on the defense of the video, issuing apologies and reports about how the situation should have been handled differently. The Chicago-based airline also instituted new policies, including:
- Limiting the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.
- Not requiring seated customers to give up their seats.
- Increasing voluntarily denied boarding incentives to as much as $10,000.
- Reducing the amount of overbooking aboard future flights.
While United has appeared to move forward from the incident, have they changed? Is United once again the guardian of the “friendly skies,” as they claimed to be in their late 20th century advertising campaigns?
In oversells alone, United may be changing course and allowing more passengers to get to their final destination. Prior to the incident, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) data shows 15,917 passengers between January and March 2017 were voluntarily denied boarding, while 900 were refused boarding during the same time period. Between July and September 2017, only 11,726 voluntarily gave up their seats, while 103 were involuntarily denied boarding.
At the same time, regional carriers SkyWest Airlines and subsidiary ExpressJet Airways, who operate select regional flights for United, have also changed their ways, reducing the number of passengers denied boarding on their flights. The flight in question, UA3411, was operated by Republic Airline – this carrier does not report their data publicly to the DOT.
Is the public buying the “New United” and their changes? Between May and October 2017, flyers registered 1,147 complaints about United to the DOT, with the most registered over baggage, customer service and ticketing. During this same period of time, only one airline received more complaints: 1,624 issues were raised to federal officials against American Airlines. United performed worse in complaints than fellow legacy competitor Delta Air Lines (672 complaints) and even low-cost carrier Spirit Airlines (826 complaints).
FlyerTalkers were very direct and split in their opinions about the UA34111 situation. 1KHI called it the situation “A complete embarrassment for United, let alone a doctor trying to see patients,” while Aussienarelle told a similar story of how United gave them a seat, just to immediately rescind it. User jbeans made a decision after the incident: “I’ll definitely be trying to avoid them as much as possible in the future.”
That’s not to say that all United experiences have been negative in 2017. FlyerTalkers have posted over 190 comments about their positive experiences when flying with the carrier, ranging from unexpected upgrades to great customer service.
Although it appears United has learned a powerful lesson from the UA3411 incident, time will be their ultimate judge. While they made good on their promise to fly more passengers on time, they still have a long way to go in winning back their customer base.