United Airlines: Aviation insiders ask whether airline was really to blame for 'Bumpgate'

As the dust begins to settle from the United passenger-dragging incident, aviation professionals give their take on the situation

In the court of public opinion between United and the passenger who was forcibly removed from their aircraft on Monday, there’s no contest: the airline is indisputably at fault, the victim entirely innocent. 

But beyond the outrage, many airline professionals – particularly cabin crew – are less sympathetic. The Independent asked several aviation insiders for their take on the situation.

Mary Kirby, editor of Runway Girl Network

I must say I'm aghast that anyone would try to apologise for United's handling of #bumpgate, both on a frontline and communications level or condone the carrier's behaviour. I have seen a lot of industry people bend over backwards to blame the passenger and it beggars belief in my opinion. I'm grateful that United's CEO has taken ownership and finally released a proper apology, with a vow to do better going forward. 

Last week, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, an industry exec said in reference to the airline passenger experience, 'Your perception is your reality.' Because United seems incapable of communicating appropriately – publishing cold, sterile comments that make it seem tone-deaf, uncaring and bot-like – it is helping to fuel the fire surrounding any event or crisis, and thus further colours passengers' negative perceptions of the airline. 

The latest example, of course, is this horrifying incident, which exemplified how the airline is ill-equipped to communicate during a crisis. But #leggingsgate could also have been avoided – or at least minimised – had the airline's messaging been clearer. United needs social media assistance stat.

"John", Pilot at a major international airline

Pretty much everyone was at fault! The airline for not blocking out seats for a positioning crew. The man concerned for not following the instructions of a law enforcement officer. And the officers themselves for their unprovoked use of force. A sorry state of affairs all around.

John Walton, contributing editor at Runway Girl Network

This specific incident is horrific – but not surprising. It’s part of the ongoing pattern of airlines and the aviation industry, particularly in the US, to treat passengers with contempt. 

Everyone involved in commercial aviation needs to dramatically and fundamentally rethink the way they treat paying customers. Calling in the cops to drag someone off a plane to resolve a business dispute should not and cannot be the answer, and three days later United CEO Oscar Muñoz is finally agreeing with that. 

A key problem is that US carriers on the whole have practically zero goodwill they can count on from the flying public, which is entirely their own fault. Urgent work is needed to change that. US airlines are in a perfect storm of their own making: over-consolidation; refusal to work with the Gulf airlines; revitalised full-service challengers in Alaska and JetBlue; low-cost pursuit from Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant; seemingly continual scandals, gutted frequent flyer programmes and the Basic Economy squeeze. Add to that increasingly mobile, social and vocal passengers – just look at the virality of an Asian passenger having his head smashed into an armrest on Weibo, and compare those users to United’s longhaul China strategy – together with the Trump Effect, and it’s a poor outlook. 

Industry long-timers are cracking out the old canard about how passengers may be angry with United now, but will come flooding back if the fares are low enough. I take a more measured view: passengers’ decisions are affected by many factors, and as the high season booking period for summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas rolls around, I think they’ll be having conversations like “Oh, not United, do you remember what they did to that poor man?”, “Airline B is only $20 more expensive,” “Look how much cheaper No-Frills Airline is,” and “Well, Low-Cost Carrier can’t be that much worse”.

“Brad”, cabin crew at a rival airline

Imagine being in your office, and a man comes in for a long scheduled meeting at the end of the day. Meeting ends and he is super displeased at the outcome of the meeting and now refuses to leave until the company changes their mind on a policy. After asking several times to leave on his own accord, he still refuses. It's late, time to go home, and your office is after all private property. What do you do?

There are about a million ways to do our jobs, but there are very few things we have to do by the book, and this is one of them. I don't make announcements for sh*ts and giggles. I make announcements to follow procedures for my crew’s safety and your safety. People forget that not complying with crew instructions is against federal law.

I still don't know enough about the timeline of the whole incident but almost 99 per cent of the reactions I have seen have been pro United from people who work in the business. Pro United in the sense that passengers MUST obey and follow crew member instructions. 

There is a lot we still don’t know [about the incident] and probably won’t, but the taunting and harassment some of my friends who are United flight attendants have endured today is awful.

Johnny Jet, founder of Johnnyjet.com

United, Republic Airways [whose metal the incident took place on] and the Chicago Aviation Police completely messed up. Force should never have been used. This whole thing could have been avoided if the gate agents kept offering passengers more money to give up their seat. $800 obviously wasn’t enough for these passengers to miss a day at work/school/time with family. But I bet if they offered $1,300 or more they would have found passengers happy to spend 18 hours in an airport hotel. 

I hope a new law comes out of this fiasco that doesn't allow airlines to involuntarily bump passengers unless it’s for safety reasons. Airlines should be required to keep offering money until someone voluntarily takes it.

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