United Revises Policy For Overbooking To Accommodate Crew

Filed Under: United

Overbooked flights happen every day on all of the legacy airlines. The vast majority of the time they are dealt with smoothly and professionally by the ground staff without incident. Most of the time the gate agent is able to solicit volunteers who are willing to give up their seat in exchange for compensation and a booking on a later flight. Occasionally they are unsuccessful at getting volunteers, however, and end up involuntarily denying boarding to a passenger. Which sucks.

The issue with United’s flight from Chicago to Louisville last Sunday was that it wasn’t actually overbooked when boarding began — it only became so when four deadheading crew members showed up and needed to be on the flight. That caused the gate agent to have to work the oversale process after boarding had begun, or possibly even finished. When no one took the voluntarily offer — possibly because United was being cheap — they eventually called the cops who forcibly removed Dr. Dao from the plane.

Well, TMZ is reporting that United issued an internal memo yesterday that changes the policy regarding how crew can be forced onto oversold flights. 


Crew Scheduling For Oversold Flights

The memo states that the scheduling department will only allow crew to be booked onto oversold flights if it is 60-minutes or more before departure. This is so that the oversold situation can be handled in the boarding area, rather than on the plane. They go on to say that deadhead crew who don’t yet have a reservation, and are within the 60-minute window, will be booked on the next available flight.

Here is the memo as published by TMZ.


This is obviously a pretty significant change and goes a long way towards preventing a similar situation from happening. It seems that United is finally agreeing with much of the public (and us here at OMAAT) that they should not involuntary deny boarding to someone who has already boarded the plane. That seems so freaking obvious to us laypeople, but I guess the lawyers have a field day with it.

Requiring must-ride crew to be booked on the flight at least 60-minutes prior to departure will at least ensure that the gate agent has time to work the oversale process at the gate, with adequate time to solicit volunteers. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that anyone will actually take the voluntary offer so there will still be occasions where deadheading crew will displace paying passengers from the flight. But at least they won’t be yanked off the plane.

Finally I hate to play semantics here, but the memo says they won’t book deadheading crew onto oversold flights. Does that mean they’ll book them onto flights that are booked even — i.e. right to capacity — which would then create an oversold flight? Semantics, I know. And after the week they’ve had, I’m sure United has the right intention here, I just wish they’d have been a little more careful with the wording to avoid that loophole.

Bottom Line

It is great to see United revising their policies to help insure that a similar incident doesn’t happen again. Requiring crew to be booked on full flights at least an hour before departure makes sense, and seems like it would have prevented the dragging of Dr. Dao from the plane. That said, this doesn’t directly address the question of whether you can be involuntarily denied boarding after boarding, but it at least prevents some of those situations from arising. It also doesn’t mean that the gate agent will actually get any volunteers, but that might be addressed if United follows Delta’s lead and raises the caps on voluntary denied boarding compensation, which I expect to happen at some point.

What do you make of these changes?

  1. I’m confused. How does this impact the incident which occurred on another airline, namely Republic Airlines? Or does it? And why is Oscar Munoz apologizing on behalf of another company? As far as I can tell, United has no ownership interest in Republic. And the deadheading employees work for Republic. Very confusing.

  2. It’s interesting. Many internet lawyers looking to defend United with the CoC claimed that United had not violated its CoC or the applicable regs by removing this passenger by claiming that “boarding” means the door must be closed. Many of us were skeptical.

    It’s pretty clear from this memo that even United understands the term “boarded” to have the same meaning as a lay person. Munoz had the same understanding when he referred to the flight as “fully boarded.” My guess is that DOT does too — that you can be boarded even before the flight is active or en route. Which would help explain this memo.

    In the end, the legalese is dwarfed by the public relations. But, for the record, I think those of us arguing this was a breach of contract, improper removal of a boarded passenger have pretty firm ground to stand on. In a civil action, I would certainly like that side of the case better. And this memo would surely help the case by defining boarding.

  3. @SeaFlyGuy

    I see what you’re trying to say, but you can’t actually be so dense as to not understand the repercussions of this last week for UA and their brand…

  4. Be interesting to see how this affects their schedule. I’m sure only about .0001ish % of fights might be affected, but I can easily see a situation where a crew is going to an offline station to pick up a plane load of passengers and fly them somewhere and not getting there will make THAT flight that much later. Or if it’s the last flight of the day that the crew could have taken, now the outgoing flight will have to wait until the next day. I’ve deadheaded enough in my 26 years as an FO & CA, but have never seen anything as ugly as this incident (well, almost, lol).

  5. @SeaFlyGuy

    Not sure if you’re uninformed/dense, or just trolling, but this was a UNITED Express flight, with a big UNITED logo on the aircraft. It may be owned/operated by Republic, but it was contracted to UNITED. I’m pretty sure that Oscar Munoz just passing the buck to Republic wouldn’t fly with anyone with half a brain.

  6. @Really?

    I actually don’t understand. There were no United employees involved. Oscar Munoz is not the CEO of Republic Airlines. Why is he speaking for them? United has a contract with them to provide regional service. Everything that occurred that day involved Republic. I don’t see how the pax can sue United at all. Do you?

  7. Well, okay. But was United unaware in advance of boarding that they had four crew members needing to be repositioned? Seems crazy that the crew just showed up at the last minute and the ensuing mess occurred. In any event, I’m sure this change will work.

  8. @john

    So… how does contracting to UA make it their responsibility? Republic aircraft, Republic crew. I find it incredibly annoying when people assume the logo on the plane equals United. It clearly does not. I know it’s super fun to jump all over United, but they had absolutely nothing to do with what happened that day. If Republic were a subsidiary of UAL, it would be different. But it’s not.

  9. @SeaFlyGuy if you see all the press releases the 4 employees you needed to fly were flying a “mainline” flight out of Louisville so they were United employees not Republic airways employees. United crew scheduling created this situation by putting deadhead crews on the must fly list after people had boarded or the deadhead crew created it by turning up late at the airport. Republic did the best under the circumstances . They should have refused to board the United crew but the power dynamics between United and Republic are one sided.

  10. @SeaFlyGuy

    You and I may understand that Republic was responsible, but if Oscar had said “it wasn’t one of our planes, and it wasn’t our crew,” no one would have listened. All they would hear/see was UNITED Express. This was already a PR disaster, and passing the buck would have only made it worse.

  11. @SeaFlyGuy

    I haven’t personally seen United’s contract with Republic but I’m betting there is likely some form of indemnification by United on Republic’s behalf as there typically is whenever you subcontract something out. So yes, while any legal action may technically take place against Republic, it ultimately comes back to United both (i) in the court of public opinion and (ii) in a litigation event.

    Most readers on this blog know the details about how the majors farm out routes to regional operators, so you being pedantic about it doesn’t really help your case and isn’t impressing any of us.

  12. @SeaFlyGuy – I am not an aviation legal expert but I do have an MBA, a business owner, and am familiar with contract law. Republic Airlines (DBA as United Express) might be a legal separate entity from United Continental Holdings but as soon as Republic contract with United to operate their express routes they became an agent of United. As such, it might be good for everyone to brush up on their agency law. There are certain things that the parent would not be responsible for, but in this case they would be because the Republic crew were behaving as though they were United crew and the public behaved as such. The flights were sold under the United umbrella and they are on the hook. The only way United parent would be able to get away with not being liable is if Republic employees deliberately acting against established and accepted policy that United set forth in the agency agreement. A perfect example of this: If I, as ABC Car Company, hires XYZ to provide drivers for my cars, and the driver in the course of driving a fare asking the passenger to leave the car after they got in and paid, not only will the driver be held at fault but I will be subject to liability as well for creating an unsafe environment in one of my cars. That is a simplified example but one not too far off from what is presented here. Not to mention the PR disaster that this has caused.

    Anyone that has owned a business or has been in a position of responsibility that makes decisions that affects a company’s reputation in a meaningful way can quickly understand that, in many cases, it is less about the immediate legal or financial consequences but the loss of goodwill and reputation that could be deadly. Unfortunately, perception is often reality usually more so than is fair and that is why we “settle” with people that give us problems. Even if the settling party in actually did not wrong. (That is also why tort law is a continual subject of conversation in many circles). In United’s case, I am glad to see that something concrete was done about it. I think most gate level employees tried to practice this as much as they can, no one wants to be the focal point of a scene, but in this case, a poor decision on the part of someone in ops tried to push this and well the chips didn’t fall to the side as easily as they expected.

    I will give kudos to Travis for writing an, IMO, exceptionally concise piece that recaps everything in an efficient way (albeit we are now almost a week out).

  13. It’s no different then any freelancer or sub contractor situation: the employer who contracted them assumes legal responsibility for their action just as if they were part of the company full time.

    If I hire a large landscaping company to maintain my building and they in turn sub out some of the work to a smaller company and an employee of that company burns the place down the company I hired is responsible, not the sub.

    From any legal point of view United is responsible.

  14. @SeaFlyGuy, I assume you’re not a lawyer, but if A contracts with B to do something, and B screws it up, A can be held liable. This is first-year law school stuff.

  15. This is just another lame attempt to give them reasons to bump paying customers so that crew can fly instead. Why do these “must ride” crew have the right to displace the customer when UA screwed up in the first place by not getting their crew to where they need to be by when they need to be there?

    There is no mention on the memo about what they are doing for the customer.

  16. @D.a. Unfortunately, airplanes don’t give notice when they are going to break, weather isn’t always predictable, crews run out of duty day even for such lame reasons as ATC delays. To say that it is United’s screw-up that they had to deadhead a crew over in the first place is misplaced.

  17. @J – while the circumstances that led to United’s need to dead-head a crew to Louisville might be entirely legitimate, how they handled the problem once confronted with it is the issue in dispute. It was not an emergency, United wanted to save a flight out of Louisville from disruption, but that was hardly cause for potentially creating the mess that they ended up causing in the end. (I wonder if that Louisville flight ended up leaving anyways?). Let’s say I owned a taxi company and one of my driver’s got sick mid-shift and had to stop driving leaving the car in a parking lot somewhere. I decided to send another driver out to the car to relieve the other driver and resume services. Let’s say I saw another one of my taxis nearby and decided to send the replacement driver out in that car. A fare had just recently hailed the cab and got in the back seat. So I went up to the taxi, dragged the fare out of the back of the car and had the taxi take the replacement driver to the car. Now lets assume the original driver got sick for legitimate reasons, and keeping all of the taxis going on the road is sound business policy. But that does not excuse the taxi supervisor from removing a fare from a car and replacing it with crew. (Some might argue that the passenger had not paid yet, well that is true but it is usual and customary in the taxi business to pay AFTER not BEFORE as in the case of airline ticketing and once a taxi driver accepts a fare and lets them in the car they are otherwise obligated to transport them). We seem to be beating a dead horse here. United’s liability does not stem from the original problem (the need to get the crew to Louisville) but the entirely new problem they created by removing a paid and seated passenger from a plane outside of an emergency or safety situation.

  18. This policy is what I wanted the most. I understand that people being bumped for crew rest will unfortunately happen, but I thought it was reasonable to require it to take place before boarding. This new policy addresses that concern. Hopefully United will soon follow Delta’s lead in allowing more compensation.

  19. How about some discussion of the root cause of over-booking situations and how that might be resolved? Simply saying that it is established practice is not good enough.

    It seems to me that there are two kinds on “No Shows”. The first are full fare ticket holders who can change flights or cancel at the last minute without any fees or penalties and the second are people who bought usually cheaper non-refundable tickets where the cancellation fees or penalties can easily exceed the original cost of the ticket. The airline has accepted a premium fare for the full fare option so no over-booking should be contemplated on account of those sales. With regard to the second kind, and likely majority of ticket holders, unless there is a worthwhile refund coming their way they will not waste their time to cancel but will simply not show up, possibly buying a new ticket if they need one on any airline. If the refunds were a percentage of the ticket price, plus full refund of taxes and airport fees that second group would have a financial incentive to at least go on-line and cancel or change the ticket. That would reduce the likelihood of “No Shows” and scale back the instances of voluntary or involuntary denied boarding.

    Notwithstanding the financial and reputational cost of denied boarding airlines have obviously determined that overall it is advantageous to them to persist, which seems to me to be inequitable and possibly fraudulent when in effect they are selling something they have already sold, have held that ticket-holder’s cash for possibly weeks or months and is therefore no longer theirs to re-sell.

    Add to that the hub and spoke operations in the US where missed connections from delayed arrivals can further aggravate an over-booking situation, my conclusion is that it is irresponsible to sell more than say 98% of the seats on any flight and that the financial consequences on any airline that does so should be harsh to incentivize decent behavior.

  20. @Craig, I didn’t read your entire post but you start off with a misconception. I never, ever said United didn’t screw up. I’m just saying that the internet as a whole has gone ape-s… over this (and yes, rightly so in how this pax has been handled) and there are suggestions by lots folks who have no idea how airline operations work or why United may have needed to dead head the crew in the first place. I think the solution to this would have been to offer more money to get folks to get off…if it’s high enough, they’ll get off.

  21. @PJTO are you willing to pay higher ticket prices so the airlines don’t have to book their planes full?

    I just saw a news report that said Delta is raising their max bumping fee up to $9950. LOL, I think most of the plane would go for that deal.

  22. They should name this policy “Dr. Dao’s rule” 🙂 BTW, United is the only airline you enter their plane as a doctor and leave as a patient. LOL!!!!!!

  23. @SeaFlyGuy: Also my understanding is that the whole deal was caused by United gate agents. I don’t think they were Republic gate agents.

  24. Wait, not too familiar with this. So for United Express flights (which are operated on behalf of United), don’t they use mainline United ground staff? Because if they do, then it is the United staff who created the overbooking situation? And well, aside from that, aren’t they using United’s reservation system in the first place?

  25. I really thought these “express” flights worked like wet leases–i.e. only the aircraft and flight/cabin crew are from the contracted airline. Gate agents and other ground staff as well as reservations are handled by the airline who sells the flights.

  26. @ J, I don’t buy that. With the possible exception of full fare fully refundable tickets (and even some of those had a no refund for no shows), if a passenger fails to show up, the airline keeps the money anyway. Even if due to no fault of the passenger, and even if the passenger contacts the airline ahead of time as opposed to being a total no show, they still pay hefty change fees on top if the passenger reschedules.
    Further, when passengers are no shows, the airplane has less weight since it’s carrying fewer passenger and their luggage, so the airlines saves a little in fuel consumption, in addition to keeping the money. Overbooking is just a way for airlines to double dip. Some airlines don’t overbook and their ticket prices are still quite competitive.

  27. Overbooking by selling someone a ticket with the customer having the expectation of being able to board the flight is entirely different than creating a wait-list/standby and filling the no shows with that. For the airline, selling unsuspecting passengers confirmed tickets seems to be the best way to go to mitigate their losses due to whatever circumstances arise from people not being able to board a plane at an appointed time, thus shifting the consequences onto the passenger. I suppose from the passenger viewpoint, having paid for a confirmed seat with the admittedly remote chance they would get bumped is better than getting put on a wait-list/standby which gives one the feeling of uncertainty. It is something of a win-win for both sides of the equation, if and only if, the airline follows through on a meaningful compensation process, which of course did not happen here. To my knowledge, this is somewhat unique to the airline industry. I am a frequent Amtrak passenger and have taken other forms of transportation including car rentals and bumping rarely if ever is encountered unless there is a severe weather problem or equipment failure.

  28. @The Lost Boy Lloyd – at smaller outstations where all the service is provided by a lift provider like Republic or Skywest, I believe the CSRs may be employees of the lift provider or a third party. At hubs, the gate agents, etc. will be the carrier’s own staff.

    @PJTO – the airlines overbook full-fare passengers because the profit from those passengers more than offsets paying compensation to get volunteers to give up their seats when an oversold flight actually has more passengers show up than the plane can hold. Involuntary denied boarding is actually pretty rare, and from all the figures I’ve seen is more likely to happen because of equipment substitution, situations where higher-priority paying passengers (unaccompanied minors, military traveling on orders, etc) have to be rebooked due to weather or ATC delays, or to make room for air marshals (rare, but it does happen, particularly in first class.) These situations are how JetBlue, which does not oversell, can have IDB passengers.

    @SeaFlyGuy – something else to consider is that the tickets are sold by United, so the passenger’s contract is with United, not the subcontractor operating the flight on their behalf.

  29. This discussion continues to miss the overarching issue here: Namely that the domestic big 3 continue to value their employees more than their customers. This memo change is actually in a step in the right direction but it misses that the core problem is that they work their asses off to get their employees on a flight while abusing customers………that’s the main reason that Gulf and Far East carriers are much preferred to the US Flag carriers……….it’s just not rocket science………….next policy change should be that an employee in uniform is never allowed up front as long as there is a status upgradable customer in the back……..NEVER!

  30. A possible negative side effect on passengers is that while your chances of getting bumped drops, your chances of a cancelled flight increases. I’m surprised how often I am on a flight where they can’t find the crew or the crew’s connecting flight is delayed or they need to find a substitute for a sick crew member. If the airline can’t get that crew member into a plane at the last minute we could be looking at potentially higher incidences of cancelled flights which is worse than bumping a few passengers.

  31. @ J says… I was asking for some discussion of the root causes of over-booking and pointed out that high cancellation and re-booking fees discourage passengers from cancelling flights they no can no longer take, which leads to No-Shows and incentivizes airlines to overbook. I was also highlighting the matter of fraud when selling seats that have already been sold and therefore no longer available to sell.

    Who knows whether the practice results in lower seat prices for everybody? Some cite the low incidence of denied boarding, which if true means the saving to be passed on to all customers is cents not dollars but if airlines also pass-on the costs of denied boarding the activity likely costs everybody more not less, so we are all paying for this lousy policy.

    Me thinks this is fraud, that the airlines believe they profit from cancellation and re-booking fees to the point where they can’t resist over-booking and they (except this week United) suffer no personal inconvenience or consequences. They could reduce the exposure to No-Show risk but structuring cancellation fees to incentivize customers to use them but profits (and high fees not lower fares) rule. Naive to think that this is about lower fares. It is all about incremental profit at other people’s expense.

    It would be helpful if you would think through the points made and provide insight that is helpful to all readers. It is no not good enough to simply recite the old mantra that it is all about lower fares when on analysis that is not true. I’m more inclined to the view that fares are more about what the market (when competitive) will bear. Looked at fares to Europe lately?

  32. Dr. Dao’s flight UA 3411 is operated by Republic.
    The reason given for his being deplaned was crew needed to deadhead to SDF because the next (final flight for the night) got cancelled. But, that next flight UA 4771 is operated by Trans State.
    I do not think UA operates a flight from SDF. All the departing flight numbers are:
    UA3xxx operated by Republic Airlines
    UA4xxx operated by Trans States Airlines
    UA5xxx operated by SkyWest Airlines
    Therefore, it can’t be UA crews deadheading to SDF.
    It is most possibly AX Trans State crew flying on that Republic flight since it was Trans State that had a cancellation.
    So if that was the case why should AX Trans State crew get any kind of priority on a YX Republic flight over passengers?

    Sure both of them (AX and XY) operate the flights for; and UA codeshares them. But UA does NOT operate them so they cannot use the OPERATIONS reason.

    Munoz makes a reasonable point. I believe the regionals use the mainlines’ Departure Control Systems (DCS) to manage check in and boarding. That said UA and UA Express crew will have to arrive early and put themselves in the DCS. If there are not enough seats, then non-rev and rev passengers won’t get boarding passes (or their OLCI issued BPs revoked). This should solve the problem.

  33. @Flywisely

    Thank you. Article after article clearly specified that the commuting crew members were Republic employees. Not trying to defend United here at all. I just find Republic’s utter silence on the matter amusing. Their CEO be like, “It’s all you, Oscar!”

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