Travel industry officials reacted cautiously to the public furor that erupted over the removal of a passenger from a United plane last weekend, with some taking pains to avoid directly criticizing a major supplier. And while some agents said they have been contacted by clients, there were few reports of cancellations.
ASTA weighed in yesterday, calling for “increased protections” for bumped passengers and for a new look at the impact of consolidation on airline service.
The incident should be a wake up call to both Congress and the administration “to take the necessary steps to beef up passenger rights,” said ASTA president and CEO Zane Kerby.
Meanwhile, individual travel agents say they are still actively following the situation; several said there could be a backlash if the story stays in the headlines much longer.
“We have not heard any clients say ‘we do not want to fly United,’ ” said Joanne Verboom, of Travels by Gagnon in Grand Rapids, MI. “That was actually surprising, given all the coverage.”
While United CEO Oscar Munoz made a full apology on morning television after two previous efforts didn’t quell the furor – and also offered full refunds to all 70 passengers aboard the flight – Verboom said it remains to be seen how quickly United can move on. “Customers may assume the treatment of this passenger was a reflection of the company’s culture,” she said. “I hope all airlines will realize customer service is important, and that means service to all passengers, not just VIPs.”
Several travel associations issued statements, but avoided mentioning United by name; the Travel Industry Association, for example, simply referred to “challenges” faced by the “big airlines.”
"For days, the airwaves have been filled with negative stories about airlines,” noted executive vice president for public affairs Jonathan Grella, who said that “the common denominator here is that air travel has become all too unpleasant for scores of travelers.” He said that often “travelers are left stranded with few to no options,” blaming, in part, “years of over-consolidation” in the industry.
ASTA’s government affairs office sent a message to members on what they might expect to hear from customers. “With the subject of airline ‘overbooking’ very much in the news, we wanted to highlight some ASTA resources to help you respond to client and media inquiries on the subject,” the message said, providing links to DOT’s consumer rules on the topic.
While several lawmakers in recent days have called for a ban on overbooking flights, ASTA noted that the practice is still entirely legal, and “most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for no-shows.”
But while it may have technically been an overbooking that set off this incident, the situation quickly unraveled when the airline unsuccessfully sought volunteers to give up seats so that four deadheading crewmembers could report to work on flights the following morning. (The flight in question was from Chicago to Louisville, aboard a regional United Express affiliate, Republic Airlines.) Ultimately, airport security was called, and one passenger who refused a request to disembark was forcibly removed, resulting in the scene viewed by millions around the world thanks to a viral video taken by a seatmate.
While agents contacted by TMR expressed chagrin at how the situation was handled, most travel industry veterans said they’ve seen enough airline fiascos to know they blow over – eventually.
Rick Ardis, of Ardis Travel, East Rutherford, NJ, said “only one customer inquired” two days after the episode. “Anyone who flies on a regular basis knows that this kind of thing is exceedingly rare,” he said. “United is not even the airline you are most likely to be bumped from.” Ardis said his client didn’t cancel the booking with the carrier.
And agents based near United’s major hubs, such as Newark, Houston, and San Francisco, contend with another fact of life: there simply aren’t that many alternatives. For example, United operates 7 out of every 10 flights at Newark.
“I haven’t heard from any customers who want to stay away from United,” said Terry Regan, of Berkeley’s Northside Travel, in Berkeley, CA. “They are too tied into their mileage.”
Still, some booking sites could be seeing a falloff, according to anecdotal reports. The founder of the fareness.com, website said he saw virtually no bookings on United the day after the episode, which is unusual, given that the airline on average gets about half the air bookings that come through.
And nearly all other airlines and travel companies have had to deal with public relations fiascos – such as JetBlue’s infamous Valentine’s Day meltdown in 2007. They typically blow over eventually, but the question is how long it will take for the company’s reputation to recover.
Agent Joanne Verboom said there are a number of things United can do to make it right, and lowering prices has worked in the past: “I saw one comment (online) that summed it up perfectly: ‘All they have to do is drop their fares by half, and everyone will forget about this issue.’ ”