More Tales Of United’s Thuggish Disregard For Passengers Emerge

Filed Under: United

As Ben pointed out yesterday, if there’s a silver lining to the brutal treatment of a United Airlines passenger forcibly kicked off a Louisville-bound plane Sunday evening in order to accommodate deadheading crew, it’s that suddenly the casually callous method of customer service perfected by United Airlines (although surely in one-off instances mirrored by American, Delta, and others) is starting to receive major pushback from the general public, and not just the insular miles-and-points community. People are outraged, and rightly so.

Now that this outrage is part of the national conversation, it seems more people are feeling like it’s worthwhile to come out of the woodwork — that their individual stories of customer treatment might collectively create a critical mass that might finally result in a sea change in terms of customer service.


The consumer affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times published a piece yesterday which is infuriating, though not nearly in comparison to the horrific ejection of Dr. David Dao on Sunday. Per the Times:

Geoff Fearns, 59, is president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, an Irvine investment firm that handles more than half a billion dollars in real estate holdings on behalf of public pension funds. He had to fly to Hawaii last week for a business conference.

Fearns needed to return early so he paid about $1,000 for a full-fare, first-class ticket to Los Angeles. He boarded the aircraft at Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai, took his seat and enjoyed a complimentary glass of orange juice while awaiting takeoff.

Then, as Fearns tells it, a United employee rushed onto the aircraft and informed him that he had to get off the plane.

“I asked why,” he told me. “They said the flight was overfull.”

Fearns, like the doctor at the center of that viral video from Sunday night, held his ground. He was already on the plane, already seated. He shouldn’t have to disembark.

“That’s when they told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute,” Fearns said. “They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me.”

Apparently United had some mechanical troubles with the aircraft scheduled to make the flight. So the carrier swapped out that plane with a slightly smaller one with fewer first-class seats.

Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flier program, gets the boot.

“I understand you might bump people because a flight is full,” Fearns said. “But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”

Now, look: obviously this isn’t a sob story. We’re talking about a very wealthy man who was kicked out of his first class seat at the Kauai Airport. And he wasn’t, in fact, kicked off the plane; when he deboarded and spoke to a gate agent, he was given a middle seat in economy instead.

What he wasn’t given? A refund.

The most popular award redemption on the planet
What a first class ticket may buy you on United

What’s resonant about this story is simply that United doesn’t seem to have a very good way of handling its customers.

Threatening any customer with handcuffs because the airline has an inventory management issue is despicable, but it seems particularly ill-advised of United Airlines to actually threaten a paid first class passenger — who, it sounds like, wasn’t putting up a fight, just arguing at the necessity of his move — with handcuffs. Were the police going to be called? Who knows, but the fact that United trains its staff and crew to use the word “handcuffs” as a way to get a passenger to shut up is beyond deplorable.

Of course, I’m taking this passenger’s account with a grain of salt for many reasons, but what’s clear from the article is:

  1. Geoff Fearns purchased a $1,000 last minute first class fare from Kauai to Los Angeles
  2. When he was seated on the plane and enjoying a pre-departure beverage, a gate agent boarded and asked him to leave the plane in order to accommodate a customer with higher status
  3. Fearns had to proactively ask to be accommodated on the scheduled flight rather than bumped to the next one, so he was placed in a middle seat in economy
  4. Fearns asked United for a refund but was only given the difference in fare between first and economy…again, only at his request was the airline even offering to give him a partial refund

Those are all bad things. Now, I would imagine they would have preferred to accommodate him on the next flight in his paid fare class where he would have flown in first, but it seems like that wasn’t an option.

What would have been an option? For a gate agent to discreetly ask if any one passenger in the first class cabin wanted to get on a later flight in exchange for a voucher. That would have avoided having to demand that a passenger leave because his status wasn’t high enough on the totem pole.

I do think it’s important to continue sharing stories and experiences like this, not to garner sympathy for a multimillionaire financial adviser but instead to drive home the point that enough is enough, that “we’re gonna put you in handcuffs” to enforce a business issue has the whiff of a criminal shakedown, and that offering passengers cash to voluntarily deboard should be Step No. 1, Step No. 2 and Steps No. 3-10, and that involuntary boarding should perhaps be prohibited altogether. (As it’s been said before, everyone has a price, so there’s no way that one more customer won’t voluntarily deboard even if it takes $2,000.)

I suspect that this story won’t gather much outrage in these parts, nor should it, but it does pile on to the depressing conclusion that United has no idea how to run a business that cares about its customers. Bottom line, an airline ought to treat its passengers with the same respect that, say, Tiffany & Co. might treat a customer who throws down $400 for a set of cufflinks.

This has been a quickly-moving story with myriad updates. The full coverage of the United incident from the One Mile at a Time team is as follows:

Crazy Video: Passenger Forcibly Dragged Off United Flight
What United Really Screwed Up With Their Latest Viral Incident
The Horrible Video I Hadn’t Seen Of The Guy Being Dragged Off A United Flight...
Why United’s Incident Is A Much Bigger Deal Than You May Think
Pathetic: United’s CEO Makes The Denied Boarding Fiasco Even Worse
What Are Your Rights If You Get Bumped From A Flight?
United’s Removal Of Passengers May Not Have Been Legal
The Root Cause Of United’s Denied Boarding Fiasco
Wow: Emirates Throws Major (But Fair) Shade At United In New Video
FINALLY: United’s CEO Issues A Real Apology For What Happened
I’m Sorry: My Initial Reaction To The United Situation Was Wrong
Fascinating: Good Morning America Interviews United’s CEO
United Is Refunding The Fares Of All Passengers On Flight 3411
  1. Has anyone seen Oscar Munoz’s interview from Good Morning America this morning? They are in full on damage control mode now. Oscar seems like a genuinely sincere guy but whoever is running Communications and PR for United needs to be fired. They are the ones that have only made the situation worse by running a “crisis comms” playbook that is outdated and thinks small.

    The story is still in the news cycle almost 72 hours later. Total failure on their crisis comms teams part.

    Link to ABC News Interview with Oscar Munoz:

  2. Why the helll was this posted? Go back to trip reviews and credit card reviews please. Enough of this faux holier than thou crap. This story is beTen to death. I’ve had the same exact thing- bumping due to aircraft gauge changes- happen on every airline. This is getting infuriating. Enough click bait, which is what this article is trending to.

  3. The original incident discussed here (the MD remived by force) got much bigger than United might have ever thought. Not only US politicians are discussing the incident and the IDB rules. The story is also national news in the newpapers and radio stations at least on Germany and China. It’s international news now…

  4. I have a couple of friends who are UA 1Ks and love the airline. Why? Because when something goes wrong they just email customer care and get bribed with lots of free RDMs or $250+ vouchers. Seems every other flight they take has such “issues” and they are rewarded amply. That’s the other side of the UA customer service world.

  5. Really?? You don’t think this story is relevant? If you are so tired of this story, why did you click on it and read it? You had the choice, didn’t you? I certainly think that it is very relevant and I’d like this to spark a real conversation. I think these postings do help in doing just that.

  6. As awful as this incident was, you have covered it way too much on this blog. More than 10 articles on this? Really? Please post trip reviews or some other interesting content as usual. We’ve had it with this United story.

  7. If involuntary denied boarding were prohibited, then voluntary denied boarding would cease as well, or at least become extremely rare — because in a normal bump situation, there actually are more people who have confirmed tickets than there are seats on the plane, and if the airline doesn’t have the ability to know they can fall back on an IVDB, they probably wouldn’t take the risk of overbooking.

    The case from the original story where a crew needed to get on the flight might still happen occasionally, and in this case if volunteers didn’t arise, the crew simply wouldn’t fly. But most bumps happen because of too many revenue passengers, not non-rev passengers.

  8. @Jason+Tyler Noone forces you to read this blog or article. OMAAT is more than trip and credit card reviews (in my opinion there are even too much cc reviews, but I know, it’s a US blog)…

  9. You might want to choose another word besides “thuggish” in the headline. Perhaps “blatant”? Or just something that’s not as racialized as “thuggish”. And I think there aren’t enough people talking about the fact that this is yet another instance of police brutality against a person of color.

  10. “More Tales Of United’s Thuggish Disregard For Passengers Emerge”

    Gee, imagine that. What a surprise! Soon we will learn the Munoz is child molester too…

  11. Other airlines downgrade people from paid first class to coach when there are operational issues too. Happened to me on many domestic and international carriers. And I’ve seen it happen to others on other domestic and international carriers as well. This is not a united specific occurrence, just a case of somebody jumping on the bandwagon for their 15 minutes. Using the word “thuggish” to describe this is overblown. Suggest moving to the next topic.

  12. Seriously, fuck United. Fuck Oscar Munoz. And fuck that bullshit non-apology that Oscar and United offered up only *after* market shares tumbled, shareholders likely got super-pissed-off, and they’d already shot themselves in the foot twice with victim blaming and back-pat circle-jerking each other over how awesome the employees are.

    We *must* keep talking about this. We *must* bring people out of the woodwork to tell their stories. We *must* keep using smart phones and their cameras to document this kind of nonsense. The pendulum has swung in favor of the airlines for far too long. Their post-9/11 overreach and their catch-all umbrella of “security threat” has finally caused revolt among consumers and with the oligopoly the Big 3 have in the US – especially with their ability to lobby and buy politicians, it’s not simply a matter of “vote with your wallet” anymore. Air travel has become a necessity similar to clean water, electricity, or any other public utility in today’s world. If you don’t realize that, then you’re either willfully and blissfully ignorant or just plain stupid. And that’s not an opinion, that’s fact.

    Keep reporting on this. Keep lambasting United. Keep the pressure on. And turn attention towards any airline – nay, any corporation – that acts like this in the future.

  13. @Jason+Tyler (+ other masochists who subscribe to their logic) – here’s a tip – if you feel an article is clickbait, then don’t click it.

    Also, how much do you pay for your monthly OMAAT subscription that you demand what’s covered and what’s not?

  14. @Jason – Operational issues and a subsequent equipment change are a completely different scenario and are covered under the contract of carriage. In your situation were you butt-in-seat and asked to move?

    I’ve experienced the same situation but knew it was happening prior to walking on the plane. Then again, I’ve never flown United in my adult life, so maybe that’s why I haven’t had that happen.

  15. Lucky (and AdamR): Keep talking about it, thank you. I’m not a frequent flyer but got poor treatment from United once. Screwed me over once. Never again. Whenever I book a transcon flight, the only way I even consider United is if the price is far far cheaper than JetBlue. I’ve had some unfortunate things happen with them too, but they’ve always taken care of me. And no, I don’t have Mosaic status. After hearing all these stories, I’m so glad I don’t live in a United hub city or regional airport with limited competition served only by United.

    And yes, fire the PR/Communications staff, but I would assume with an incident like this, Munoz would have actually looked at what was going to be communicated before it was sent. Buck stops with him, nice guy or not. Pure corporate arrogance.

  16. I always thought the main reason humans are still in customer service is because of their common sense in very tense situations. That gate agent should just be replaced with a robot if they treat customers that way!
    If the man in the article or the man that was dragged last Sunday caused a safety issue on the flight, then I understand the airline’s point of view. However, in both cases, UA failed in using basic human common sense! As for me, I won’t be flying UA until changes are made in their policies. I really hope Munoz will make these necessary changes.

  17. Either this story is not entirely true or this passenger was reseated to make room for an Air Marshal. There is no downgauge that only requires reseating one passenger. I would bet on an Air Marshal

  18. This story is very important and relevant, and I for one am glad this is being covered the way it is. Maybe something will finally change, for the better?!

    Anyone interested in other UA horror stories, I can highly recommend the following site: About time UA is getting raked over the coals.

    And @DCS, are you for real, joking about child molestation? Shame!

  19. Back in 2011 I flew united with my wife, 3 year old son and 1 year old son. We were involuntarily bumped on a 6pm flight out of O’Hare (noticing a trend?) – but all of our luggage was sent without us including items required for nursing mom. Still cannot believe they bumped us with our two small children. Had to stay in Chicago hotel without those items. 1 year old slept 45 min total that night screaming throughout. One or worse nights we’ve ever had with our kids.

    We actually booked using awards so I’m almost 100% sure they chose us so they would have to pay out less for keeping us from boarding. But c’mon united. Sending our luggage on without us. And doing that to Mom with infant. Absolutely no compassion.

  20. Last year I was sitting on a United connection flight as Premier Platinum the FA came up to me very aggressively and told me to turn phone to airplane mode I told him it was (It really was) he argued very aggressively and of course I did back. Well within less than A minute he was speaking to captain and came back said captain said if I keep being disruptive they would turn plane aground (we were taxiing) (I was NOT being disruptive) and have police meet us . Anyway it finally deescalated, but I have never felt so disrespected, unsafe , and bullied then on that instance , and it was on UNITED. So I let my status lapse and I’m glad ! I don’t fly them ! There is a culture that THEY are doing us a grand favor and we are pions that must comply or else we will be dealt with ! Needs to be a full on retraining of the culture from top down on the fact that customers are reasons they are there not other way around !!!!

  21. @TouringTony: This is different. This happens in all US airlines since someone has decided to give them the power to make customer’s lives miserable. If you sneeze a bit louder a FA may feel threatened and call the captain and say they don’t feel comfortable with you in the plane. Unfortunately, airline personnel feel now entitled to be bossy and decide if they want to make your day bad or not. I used to love to travel. Now, I do anything I can to avoid airports. However, I still fly over 100k miles a year. Thus, from the moment I step inside an airport to the moment I step outside the other one I do my best to not say a single word unless I am asked something. It is a terrible feeling but I feel I am walking on eggs. Get your example you just described. You probably wanted to punch that guy on the face but as you said you felt terrible because you knew you were not doing anything wrong but he had the power to destroy your life just because he wanted.

  22. @Jason – Tell us how many times have you been removed from an aircraft? Before you board, United can do whatever it needs to do. But to threaten a paying customer who they boarded by some gate agent who is trying to cover their mistake is deplorable.

  23. @ BOSflyer – I wonder if that’s really the DCS we know and love as his grammar is off. DCS’s anal-retentive academic persona normally prevents such errors (though I’m still trying to overcome, as DCS puts it, my “ravages on intelligence”). However, form aside, based on the usual obsessive defense of his favorite companies, I wouldn’t be surprised if he enlisted something as horrible as child molestation just to make another petty little point.

  24. This a golden opportunity for the general public to voice their concerns to Congress for reform.

    Why can’t we have common sense rules put in place?

    1. Once a plane is fully boarded with no safety issues then that should be it. If you are a paying customer you have overcome all hurdles to be transported to your destination.
    1a. If your nonrev then you can still be bumped at the discretion of your employer.
    2. Anyone arriving at the gate after all paying customers have boarded and seated but before departure will have to be accommodated by the airlines current rules or government regulations if they apply. The airline at their discretion can request voluntary deboarding to resolve overbooking issues.
    3. Passengers are not considered disruptive or abusive if they do not give up their seat for the sole purpose of boarding a different passenger.

    All of these situations have to be handled at the gate. Once it spills onto the plane then it’s a disaster for customer relations. On top of it all, then the customer no longer feels like a citizen since you have made it crystal clear that they have no rights at all in your eyes.

    In retail we would be sued every which way if we tried to refuse service to a customer due to “operational concerns”. Safety first, then customer. Everything else is a public relations nightmare.

  25. I still remember a situation I had similar to this – was in first class and couldn’t get something offer d because “you aren’t high enough on the totum pole.” Literally what the FA said to me. It was this, and another issue in first class and another on UA about 6 years ago that made me stop flying them. And I did. I live at a major hub of theirs (IAD) and haven’t had issues getting on other airlines just fine.

  26. I think the FAA has to up the compensation requirements and make sure they are enforced. That would fix a lot of the problems. Make it a flat $2k or $3k for IDB? At the end of the day, it’s still their business decision whether to let a specific passenger fly or not. The current system lets them get away with too much and the current compensation rules/structure does amount to an inconvenience a passenger goes through during an IDB.

  27. There is no more United or American; there’s Texas Air and America West operating as they always have and now using the United and American names. US fell when America West bought them too.

  28. Like the article itself, what does wealth have to do with poor treatment of our fellow man???

    Keep the coverage coming. It is totally relevant to travel! I find it very easy to not click on stories im not interested in, but perhaps the masses don’t.

  29. In reality this could have happened on any of the U.S. big three. American much more so than Delta. American has an equally poor culture, disregard for customers, awful training, and an almost spiteful approach to service. The upside to this whole story for consumers is that I think we are seeing a real wake up call in how completely awful the airline industry has become in the U.S. and what this growing monopoly is doing in shattering any attempts in respecting your customers in the same way you would wish to be treated.

    The bottom line is that every single employee with United and American should be sent for retraining with a special focus on basic empathy.

  30. I’ve avoided flying United after a horrible experience when my flight arrived at LAX. I arrived early at the departing airport (can’t remember which… probably IAD) and checked my bag. Eight hours later I’ve arrived at LAX, go to baggage clam and after 30 /45 minutes… no bag. Then go to lost baggage and wait in a 45 / 60 minute line. Customer Service rep tells me, “Oh, they sent your bag ahead of you.” (I didn’t even know that was even possible, legally.) After a looooong day, being told the airline decided to make an operational decision in their favor at your expense is the last straw. Screw them! Seriously, if they send a bag a head without telling you, they are literally setting you up to wait for your luggage at baggage claim and then to have to go to the lost and found.

    I fly with American now which really isn’t much better… they also give you the glassy-eyed corporate stare of ‘this is not my problem.’ I’ve thankfully never been bumped, but I have gotten stranded in Dallas and Philadelphia thanks to “congestion” delays, which are not covered under compensation… unlike mechanical. But, their gold and platinum desks are helpful and an admiral club membership can get you better service. I definitely learned my lesson about checking luggage though.

    In my opinion, the only airline that takes care of its customers in Southwest. Why? Because they don’t punish you with fees. The other airlines wait for something to go wrong and shake you down with $150 change fees and $150 bag fee for a 3 bag. Their boarding process is also the most civilized as passengers aren’t in a made frenzy to grab space. Seriously, boarding an American flight has turned into the adult version of ‘red rover’.

  31. What the airlines forget is, they operate fancy buses with wings. Stop acting like dictators and punishing customers that often pay top dollar for airfare. This keeping airfare cheap is a BS argument. For us poor souls that live in certain areas, the airlines take full advantage of us. How about a one way domestic fair on united for over $600? Or a round trip on Delta… Domestic ticket for over $1000. Yes a few customers get a “cheap” ticket, but that’s not the rule. These airlines have become dictators and abusive. Bow down to the share holders and the eventual reality is to crumble like a castle of sand.

  32. It is outrageous who cares if it happened in first class. The man paid for a first class ticket, boarded and then they kick him out of his seat for someone of higher status and they threaten him? On top of that they put him in economy in a middle seat and only give a partial refund? What the hell is up with this airline? Their stock deserves to sink.

  33. As Louis said, what does wealth have to do with it? Why does this posting repeatedly fall back on “Don’t hate him because he’s a millionaire. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

    Hey OMAAT, we don’t need you to add your working-class-hero verbiage to your writings. Newsflash: No one cares.

  34. Why do so many people feel compelled to tell Lucky how to run his blog? HIS blog.

    I can see letting him know your thoughts directly, since customer feedback is useful, but the constant haranguing I can do without. His blog is written in his, and his colleagues’, personal styles. imo

  35. I am baffled that so many are upset at the way United (or any other airline such as BA) treats their passengers poorly. I expect nothing from the airlines and they do tend to deliver on that. I have not been told to leave the aircraft but have been bumped prior to boarding on BA holding J award tickets. Twice. Keeping my expectations low seems to work. if I were asked to leave the aircraft by crew I would do so immediately.

    Again I am baffled at the traction this story seems to have gotten.It seems many expected better of United? Wow.

  36. I wasn’t aware United now charges for aisle seats. Some older male with prostate problems will hit them with an ADA charge and AARP will have a field day. They may run out of feet to shoot.

  37. The way WE can all show “Untied” how they’ve royally p’d off their customers is to BOYCOTT them for one entire day!
    Let their raggedy planes fly EMPTY for one full day and watch how they come begging for your business.
    As I stated before, you can have my seat on UA, because I’ve not flown them in over seven years and don’t plan to fly them ever again.

  38. “not to garner sympathy for a multimillionaire financial adviser”? What’s that got to do with your story? You’re slightly missing the point of your own story. It’s about how an airline treats people, period. It doesn’t matter who the passenger is.

  39. Okay, so I don’t know whether to believe Mr Munoz, Since the “real” apologies came after the stock took a beating. Even so, he wanted the perception of being a “victim”…. Poor leadership. Buck stops with him. These are the consequences of company culture apathy that develops when everyone gets pressured to do more with less.

    But as we all know this is not the first time Or last time for these incidents…. Mr Munoz was probably lied to by his underlings regarding “oversold” flight and “belligerent” passenger who “needed to be forcibly removed”. Now, why does this occur? Because there isn’t a fair and equitable follow up by airlines where the affected passenger is given an honest hearing. These are usually internal reviews by the airline taking their employees at their word as to the situation. As with the Hawaii story, I am sure the United employee would have documented that the passenger was belligerent, loud, threatening and that is why handcuffs came into the discussion. So this one of the things that all airlines or legislation needs to fix; as Munoz puts common sense that is fair and accountable. Mistakesnhappen. Human nature. But lets follow up these situations in a fair manner. Perhaps this is the reason people have got apathetic about air travel and sort of “accept” bad experiences in air travel as the “norm”. At least some of the non US international carriers still making flying a pleasurable and memorable experience


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