United Raising Limit on Payments to Bumped Flyers to $10,000

By DAVID KOENIG - AP Airlines Writer

DALLAS (AP) – United Airlines says it will raise the limit to $10,000 on payments to customers who give up seats on oversold flights and will increase training for employees as it deals with fallout from the video of a passenger being violently dragged from his seat.

United is also vowing to reduce, but not eliminate, overbooking the selling of more tickets than there are seats on the plane.

The airline made the promises Thursday as it released a report detailing mistakes that led to the April 9 incident on a United Express plane in Chicago.

United isn’t saying whether ticket sales have dropped since the removal of a 69-year-old passenger by three airport security officers, but the airline’s CEO admits it could be damaging.

“I breached public trust with this event and how we responded,” Oscar Munoz told The Associated Press. “People are upset, and I suspect that there are a lot of people potentially thinking of not flying us.”

To head off customer defections, United had already announced that it will no longer call police to remove passengers from overbooked flights, and will require airline crews traveling for work to check in sooner. On Thursday, it added several other new policies including:

Raising the limit on compensation to $10,000 for customers who give up their seats starting Friday. That is a maximum it’s unclear how many, if any, passengers would see that much. The current limit is $1,350. Delta Air Lines earlier this month raised its limit to $9,950.

Sending displaced passengers or crew members to nearby airports, putting them on other airlines or arranging for car transportation to get them to their destinations.

Giving gate agents annual refresher training in dealing with oversold flights. Munoz said he also wants agents and flight attendants to get more help at de-escalating tense situations.

While not a factor in this month’s incident, United also said that starting in June it will pay customers $1,500 with no questions asked if the airline loses their bag.

For United, the timing of the viral video could hardly have been worse. The airline struggled badly after a 2010 merger with Continental, enduring several technology breakdowns that angered customers. In the past year, however, the airline has flown more on-time flights and lost fewer bags. It recently rolled out plans for expanding service this summer.

Instead of being commended for those signs of progress, however, it has faced more than two weeks of withering criticism and mockery. David Dao, the passenger injured when he was yanked from his seat, is almost certain to file a lawsuit.

Munoz apologized again and faulted his own initial response, in which he defended airline employees and called Dao belligerent.

“That first response was insensitive beyond belief,” Munoz said. “It did not represent how I felt,” saying that he got “caught up in facts and circumstances” that weren’t initially clear, instead of expressing his shock.

On Thursday, Thomas Demetrio, Dao’s attorney, said in a statement that the policy changes “are passenger friendly and are simple, commonsense decisions on United’s part to help minimize the stress involved in the flying experience.”

In Thursday’s report, United provided new details about the incident. It said Flight 3411 to Louisville, Kentucky, was oversold by one ticket, but a volunteer gave up his seat. After passengers boarded, four crew members of Republic Airline, which operates many United Express flights, showed up late after their Louisville-bound plane was delayed by a mechanical problem.

United said it was a mistake to let the Republic crew board late, which required removing four paying passengers; calling officers when there was no safety or security issue; and not offering enough money to entice volunteers to give up their seats.

“We could have spent a lot of $10,000s and made that thing right,” Munoz said.

United said it will reduce overbooking, particularly on flights with a poor track record of finding volunteers to give up their seats, but won’t end the practice. Munoz said if airlines can’t overbook there will be more empty seats and fares will rise. Delta CEO Ed Bastian called overselling flights “a valid business process.”

Politicians in Washington and elsewhere have called for a ban on overselling flights. Some critics have said airlines should leave a few seats empty if they think they will be needed by crew members.

“This overbooking needs to be softened,” Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, told the AP. “People really do believe when they buy their ticket they are good to go.”

On Thursday, Munoz talked to The Associated Press about the incident and the new policies designed to deal with overbooking.

Here are excerpts from the interview. Answers have been edited for length.

Q: People have been complaining about airline service for years. Why did it take video of a passenger being violently removed from a plane for United to make these changes?

A: Clearly the event certainly accelerated our focus on this … We’ve been on a pretty nice trajectory with regards to our reliability, with regards to our friendliness. We hear that from customers. Progress has been made, and this event a couple weeks ago was a failure.

Q: Is this hurting ticket sales?

A: We have such big numbers that I suspect there are places where things have fallen off a little bit … It’s a little too early to tell. We will watch that and closely monitor. My going-in perspective is one of paranoia. I breached public trust with this event and how we responded. People are upset, and I suspect that there are a lot of people potentially thinking of not flying us. We have to re-earn their trust. Today’s announcements are a first step in that.

Q: Are you worried that Congress or the Department of Transportation might ban overbooking or take other steps opposed by the airlines?

A: I suspect that this event will generate some enthusiasm for any of those items.

Q: Do you regret anything you personally did in responding to this incident? Maybe the letter to employees? (In that letter he blamed Dao and called him “disruptive and belligerent.”)

A: That first response was insensitive beyond belief. It did not represent how I felt. Like most people, I got caught up in facts and circumstances because clearly the event was more complicated than other recent ones at other airlines. I messed up, plain and simple.

(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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