United Airlines changes their booking policies, fixing nothing

Over the weekend I looked at a recent policy change put in place by Delta Airlines as they clearly sought to capitalize on the massive PR disaster currently engulfing United Airlines. They changed their procedures for how passengers might be reimbursed (and at what amounts) when their purchased seats are cancelled due to overbooking. As I said at the time, this was an almost entirely superficial change designed to appease public anger while doing little to address the underlying problem.

Shortly after their announcement, United unveiled a new “reform” of their own which is, if anything, even more ineffectual than what Delta did. They have changed their procedures for how crew members would arrange “deadheading” flights, returning them to a different airport in preparation for their next assignment. Perhaps even worse than the Delta policy shift, this new plan actually benefits United pretty much exclusively while effectively providing no net benefit to paying passengers.

United Airlines will no longer allow crew members to displace passengers who are already seated on a plane.

Under a new policy, which is meant to avoid future public relations disasters like the one the world witnessed earlier this week, airline crews are required to check in at least an hour before a flight leaves, the airline company said. The purpose is to avoid having to find a seat for a crew member after all passengers have already boarded.

What United is responding to here was the specific situation which produced this crapstorm for them in the first place. There were two factors which made the passenger dragging incident so much worse than similar passenger displacements which take place every day. First of all, they removed someone who was already seated on the plane, ratcheting up the anger levels by several orders of magnitude. But adding insult to injury was the fact that the passengers being removed were replaced by United employees who were flying for free, “deadheading” back to their primary hub to work an upcoming flight.

The only thing United is actually changing here is when you get bumped so one of their pilots or cabin crew members can take your seat away from you. This makes life for United Airlines much more comfortable while you still get stuck in an airport for hours or days after having purchased a ticket in advance. By forcing the deadheading employees to check in “at least one hour” in advance of the flight they ensure that you don’t get on the plane at all. Removing a seated passenger from the cabin is far more problematic than simply denying entry to a ticketed passenger in the waiting area near the gate. (A lesson United has clearly learned the hard way.)

What they have completely failed to do is address the fact that nobody should be giving up their paid seat for a free ride for an airline employee in the first place. Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. United has been in business since 1926 and they are one of the largest airlines in the world. By this time they know enough to be able to forecast when they will have flights going to and from various cities and what crews are available to work those flights. If a crew is going to be “stranded” at a given location and need transport back to a hub, they can figure that out as well. If they couldn’t manage that simple task of personnel management they wouldn’t still be in business.

Knowing that, why wouldn’t they make arrangements in advance, telling the crew members which flight they would be returning on and when? Doing so would allow them to simply not put those four seats (in the case of the customer dragging incident) up for sale on the flight. They clearly don’t plan to change their policy on overbooking all their flights and turning away people who have already paid for their tickets and planned their lives around those travel arrangements. So this would just mean that for a flight with 200 seats they would only sell 216 tickets instead of 220.

So, again… why weren’t they already doing that? Because they don’t care. They can allow their employees to slash and burn their way through the ticket lines and kick paying customers to the curb in a willy nilly fashion because they know that the flying public has so few options anymore that we’ll be forced to show up for their horrible service anyway. And this “change” in policy doesn’t mean a thing. You still face the prospect of having your plans changed (or cancelled) at the last minute based on the whims of the United gate agents. You just won’t be able to get on the plane first before it happens. And their deadheading employees will still take priority over you every single time.

Dear United… you still don’t get it. Or, even worse, you probably do get it but you simply don’t care.