United Airline is taking a public relations beating this year…much of it self-inflicted. Now, after months of misfires and misreading public sentiment, the company appears to be trying to make moves in the right direction. Moves that some are calling “baby steps” … but at least they’re moving. Recently, the company began promising to “bump” fewer passengers off planes against their will. This was the policy that created a massive PR scandal after a doctor was dragged off a flight after refusing to give up a seat he paid for. The incident was captured on film, and rage erupted against the airline. Millions decried the treatment of Dr. David Dao, calling it unnecessary, brutal, and horrible.
Initially, United seemed poised to defend the actions of the security team that was upholding the airline’s policy. But, after the huge outcry, things appear to be changing, however slowly. According to recent media reports, involuntary bumping is down 85%, a statistic confirmed by United CEO Oscar Munoz in a recent call to investors. And, in addition to reducing how many passengers actually get bumped, United very publicly raised the amount of cash that can be offered to a person who is forced to give up their seat to $10,000. Another new idea is the pre-warning. If United sees that an overbooked flight will be too full, they will alert passengers before they board the plane to see if anyone would be willing to give up their seat … paid, of course.
The combination of the early indicator and the increased financial compensation has been dramatic. Compared to this time last year, bumping is down 85%, and customers appear much happier with the arrangement. All this, of course, begs one question: why does overbooking happen in the first place. And this is a key question that must be answered in United’s PR response to its earlier public relations crisis. There are two basic answers: one is logistical, the other is official.
In the first case, a flight may be too full because bookers assume a certain percentage of cancellations. With per-seat profit margins being what they are, losing multiple passengers to cancellations is something most airlines are not willing to accept. Therefore, like doctors’ offices, which also experience many cancellations, they tend to overbook. Sometimes, though, everyone expected does show up. And that necessitates a bump. The official reason has to do with air marshals and flight crews. If an air marshal needs a seat on a flight, or the airline needs to move a crew from one place to another on short notice, they need those seats … and that results in a bump.
These are reasons passengers may not be happy about … but more money and earlier warnings certainly blunt that unhappiness. And that, as with the lower bump rates, has United flying in the right direction.
Ronn Torossian is the Founder and CEO of the New York based public relations firm 5WPR: one of the 20 largest PR Firms in the United States.