How United could have avoided a PR mess: Check its own schedule

Travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2013.
Travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2013. AP

It didn’t have to happen.

United Airlines, now under withering criticism for forcibly ejecting passengers from a plane it overbooked, has argued it had to make room on a Chicago-to-Louisville flight for a crew needed elsewhere.

But according to a McClatchy review of the airline’s service schedule, the carrier could have put that crew on as many as three other United flights to Kentucky from Chicago the same evening. Or two flights on other airlines.

The incident sparked an international social media firestorm and eventually prompted Oscar Munoz, United’s chief executive, to issue multiple apologies after initially defending the actions of airline employees.

United had three additional flights from Chicago to Kentucky airports on Sunday night, including one directly to Louisville, where the crew needed to be.

The full, ultimately controversial flight was United 3411, scheduled to depart O’Hare Airport at 5:41 p.m. Sunday.

But according to United’s website, its next flight to Louisville from O’Hare, 4771, was scheduled to depart at 9 p.m.

Another two United flights to Lexington and Cincinnati depart about the same time.

In addition, American 3509 is scheduled to leave O’Hare an hour after United 3411’s scheduled departure time for Louisville. Southwest 4484 is to leave Chicago’s Midway Airport for Louisville at 9:50 p.m.

Rather than put these employees on those other flights, United chose to randomly kick four passengers off Flight 3411, including David Dao, a Kentucky doctor who airport police dragged forcibly off the plane as other passengers watched in horror, creating an international firestorm on social media.

It’s still not clear why United bumped the four passengers rather than use three alternative flights on its own schedule to accommodate the employees or why it didn’t consider using other carriers with direct flights to Louisville.

United didn’t respond to questions about the incident.

Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American’s pilots, said he carries other airlines’ employees on his flights “all the time.”

“It is not uncommon for a crew to be transported by another carrier when there are options available,” said Tajer, who has 25 years of commercial aviation experience.

Though Congress is on a spring recess through April 24, four top lawmakers from the Senate Commerce Committee wrote directly to Munoz Tuesday asking what the airline could have done to avoid forcing the removal of passengers from a flight that was already boarded.

“What other options, if any, were explored to get the airline personnel to their destination?” wrote Sens. John Thune, R-South Dakota, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “For example, did (United) explore options for these employees to travel to a nearby airport before removing passengers from this flight?”

United’s flights from O’Hare to other Kentucky airports on Sunday evenings include Flight 3889 to Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport, an 80-mile drive from Louisville. It is scheduled to depart Chicago at 8:50 p.m.

Another United flight, 4499, operates to Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport, about 100 miles from Louisville and is scheduled to leave O’Hare at 9:10 p.m.

A Yellow Cab taxi from Lexington to Louisville costs $215, and an Executive Transport car service to Louisville from the Cincinnati airport, which is in Kentucky, costs $219.60, according to the companies.

None of these options would have made the crew much later into Louisville than they already were: The passenger-dragging ordeal delayed 3411’s departure by two hours.

Tajer said most passengers don’t realize that airline employees who need to be somewhere for another assignment get “the highest priority status the company can provide,” and that sometimes it means displacing passengers.

“If you’re going to cover a trip, you are given the top priority to be on that airplane,” he said. “If I walk up to the gate and no one’s on board yet, they’re going to produce a ticket for me.”

What was unusual about Sunday’s incident, aviation experts said, is the passengers were already on the plane when the “deadheading” employees showed up and asked to board.

Rob Britton, an aviation consultant and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, said when airline employees fly on other carriers, it’s almost always on “standby,” meaning only if there are seats available after everyone else boards.

On a Sunday night, Britton said, it’s entirely possible there were no other seats to buy.

“If seats are available, employees of other airlines are boarded after those of the airline operating the flight,” Britton said. “It’s a challenging process, and because flights are more full today than in the past, it’s happening regularly.”

Though Britton said the United incident was “terrible,” he said the public should give the airline a chance to learn from its mistakes.

“I hope that the United incident will cause airlines to take a more holistic approach toward facilitating employee travel,” Britton said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis