Home Opinion Unfriendly Skies: A PR Nightmare and a Failure to Use Worthy Incentives

Unfriendly Skies: A PR Nightmare and a Failure to Use Worthy Incentives


By James Lint
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Military University
Senior Editor for
 In Cyber Defense and Contributor, In Homeland Security

If you rented a luxury vehicle while on vacation, what would you do if a company employee came outside and required you to return the car and take a compact auto instead? Would you be more likely to give back the luxury vehicle if the employee offered sufficient incentive, such as free gasoline or a discount on future rentals?

When it comes to incentives, the value of the incentive might or might not motivate someone to act in accordance with company policy. The value of incentives became a factor during a recent incident on United Express Flight 3411, going from Chicago to Louisville. This flight was operated by a United Airlines contractor, Republic Airways.

This flight was fully booked. But United needed four seats to fly pilots and a crew to Louisville for another flight. United then offered cash incentives to get four passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. When that didn’t resolve the issue, the airline chose four passengers who were then told to get off the plane. Three of the selected passengers complied and exited the aircraft.

But law enforcement officials had to forcibly remove the fourth selected passenger, Dr. David Dao. Dao was injured as he was carried off the plane. Other passengers protested the removal of Dao and distributed video of the incident on social media channels.

Bumping Passengers from Flights Is Relatively Rare Now

In previous decades, air travel was fun and planes often had empty seats. However, this is not the current situation for passengers, who find flying physically uncomfortable, expensive and crowded.

But airlines are happy to have full planes. Full airplanes make stockholders happy.

Today, airlines intentionally oversell seats and gamble that there will be last-minute cancellations so just the right number of passengers show up. Airlines are good at this form of gambling and most of the time, they make the correct bet.

Business Insider magazine reported, “Statistically speaking, this [bumping of ticketed passengers off a flight] rarely happens. According to Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle University’s “Airline Quality Rating” study, involuntary denied boardings fell to just 0.62 per 10,000 passengers last year.

How Airlines Remove Paying Passengers from Flights

Normally, the selection process of pulling people off a flight doesn’t require law enforcement officers to physically remove a passenger in a manner that would cause injury. When an airline overbooks a flight and needs to make a decision about who should leave the aircraft, the staff conducts a review. Typically, families traveling together, disabled people and unaccompanied children are not bumped from a flight, which makes sense.

Next, the airlines use various incentives – including cash and free tickets – to motivate passengers to give up their seats. They increase the incentives until they get the required number of volunteers. Some of this policy is included in the airline’s Contract of Carriage on the company website or printed on the airline tickets in microscopic writing.

Storing the Contract of Carriage on the company website gives the airline more room to write longer, more complex contracts. Delta Airlines’ Contract of Carriage, for example, is 51 pages long.

Public Relations Nightmare Continues for United Airlines

United’s handling of Dao’s removal and injury has caused a public relations flap that its marketing team will be cleaning up for at least a year. Thanks to social media posts of the incident, the public has seen how the airlines work and the excellent work the airline attorneys do to create these Contract of Carriage documents.

The Contract of Carriage includes required minimum payments based on the amount you paid for your ticket. If you paid less for your ticket than others on the flight did, the airline can remove you with a minimum cost. There is nothing about a cap on the amount of payments made. Airlines might be smarter to incentivize passengers with more money rather than physically forcing their removal.

Other Airlines Can Avoid Flight 3411 Incidents with More Effective Incentives

We are a capitalist society. If a first incentive does not work, up the ante and give customers a better incentive. Maybe the airline industry should start thinking about better incentives?

Congress should enact laws that better protect airline passengers and ensure that when people leave an airplane voluntarily, they are recompensed accordingly. Due to United’s handling of this incident, Dao will likely sue United Airlines for millions of dollars or settle for a substantial payment for his injuries and personal trauma.

The smarter route for airlines to follow is to win passengers’ trust and provide a more effective incentive (such as $2,000 in cash) when travelers must be persuaded to take a later flight. This is how you motivate people and avoid a public relations crisis.

About the Author

James R. Lint recently retired as the (GG-15) civilian director for intelligence and security, G2, U.S. Army Communications Electronics Command. He is an adjunct professor at AMU. James has been involved in cyberespionage events from just after the turn of the century in Korea supporting 1st Signal Brigade to the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis as the first government cyber intelligence analyst. He has 38 years of experience in military intelligence with the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, government contracting and civil service.

Additionally, James started the Lint Center for National Security Studies, a nonprofit charity that recently awarded its 45th scholarship for national security students and professionals. James was also elected as the 2015 national vice president for the Military Intelligence Corps Association. He has also served in the Department of Energy’s S&S Security Office after his active military career in the Marine Corps for seven years and 14 years in the Army. His military assignments include South Korea, Germany and Cuba, in addition to numerous CONUS locations. James has authored a book published in 2013, “Leadership and Management Lessons Learned,” a book published in 2016 “8 Eyes on Korea, A Travel Perspective of Seoul, Korea,” and a new book in 2017 Secrets to Getting a Federal Government Job.”