The United Fiasco From A Cockpit Viewpoint


I’ve been a captain at a major airline for over 25 years now, which is why this involuntary deplaning of a United Express passenger is both sad business and not at all surprising. Here’s why.

air oversold

First, at most airlines passenger service has become, for management, an irrational but deliberate choke point in the airline flight operations. And here’s the resulting death blow to passenger service: at the gate, in the heat of the departure time battle, the airlines field their lowest paid, least experienced workers and impose the highest, most rigid constraints–close the aircraft door, dispatch the revenue unit.

They arm these hapless, stressed-out workers with little or no authority–just do what you’re told.  Typically, the worst circumstances exist “after hours,” meaning after 5pm when airport and airline managers are gone for the day.

Then the hourly-paid, often contract workers are left with little authority, no flexibility (SOMEONE would deplane at the right price point–but there’s a typically standing cap) and have little recourse other than to call for law enforcement. Often, once force is used, the “customer service” results are not favorable.

air doctor

Looking for blame? Look to the top airline pooh-bahs, the passenger service managers, airport operations budget directors, regional managers, and passenger service supervisors who slash passenger service budgets to the bone, then rigidly dictate time constraints that MUST be adhered to by the lowest-rung hourly folks who work the non-office hours and deal with the very real passenger stand-offs that occur at the airport–not on any airline management spreadsheet.

This fragile, marginally adequate cost/service structure works adequately when everything is running perfectly at the airport, which it seldom does. Throw in delays, overbooking, last minute crew deadhead requirements and ultimately, involuntary deplaning plays out in flesh-and-blood realtime.

Then passengers lose, the passenger service agents lose and ultimately, the flight crew loses too: we’re all just trying to safely move the metal–once the jet is boarded. I’m ready  to sort out the cabin battles, once we’re off the ground.  As a captain, I’m not here to undo the budget-based inadequacies of passenger service planners at airline headquarters, nor am I allowed to: airline managers have consistently tried to limit crew authority to only once the jet is underway.

Great. Marketing, sales, promotions, reward levels, unit pricing? They all derive and survive from cost-driven spreadsheet logic at airline headquarters. And why does that work?

air boycott

After all the howling about the United Airlines fiasco becomes passe on social media–give it about 5 mores days–passengers will be all about the cheapest airfare once again.

That’s just how it works. Please take your seats and prepare for a bumpy ride.


13 Responses to “The United Fiasco From A Cockpit Viewpoint”

  1. […] via The United Fiasco From A Cockpit Viewpoint — The JetHead Blog […]

  2. Bill Brandt Says:

    That’s pretty much what an article in the WSJ said, too. I don’t think United stock has been much affected.

    Thanks for pointing out the background of this, too.

    When all is said and done most are all about the cheapest fare. Wonder how many made their carrier decision on the difference of $1-$5.

    I’ll bet you’d be surprised.

  3. Bill Brandt Says:

    Reblogged this on The Lexicans and commented:
    Chris Manno is an airline pilot/blogger whose posts I’ve always found to be informative. Here is his take on the United P/R fiasco

  4. Karsten Topp Says:

    After the “United kills Guitars” fiasco, I had to travel twice with a guitar and United. I’ve never had a better experience flying with a guitar. My guitar had been treated first class. Apparently, the fallout of the fiasco made cabin crew, ground crew and management more aware of the problems with delicate equipment. Unfortunately, this awarement did not last for too long. Now it is, if possible, even worse than before and airlines bailing out from the agreement by forcing to check in “oversize” equipment and even forbidding gate checking…

  5. Obviously, Chris has nailed it – AGAIN. I wish that Chris’s usual routes included my city, but it won’t happen.
    Dumbo gate agents and Door Greeting cabin crew know EXACTLY how many seats are available!! Count the boarding passes as they pass at least TWO final checks. Some pax may have priority status and a few seats may be required to move operating crews. I get it, but they are still butts in seats. (Butt cheeks/2?) This is NOT an open house call, first in etc.
    I’m slow and use a cane. I book specific seats and I often pay a bit more for the right. I’ never been bumped, I do not expect to be bumped – by ANY airline. For other reasons I avoid UA when I can.
    Once the door is closed and the engines are turning, I OK with everything. getting to that state is becoming more difficult, even on Chris’s airline. As noted, the gate agent and the boarding checker must understand simple math – and work their manifests. This unfortunate event should NOT have happened, even at UA.

  6. Arlington Traveler Says:

    Mr. Cook, the problem is that the flight crew was a “relief” crew dispatched to Louisville because a regular crew would otherwise not be qualified, likely due to delays over the weekend. They showed up AFTER the flight had been boarded. They HAD to travel and the gate agent was restricted in what she could offer. She followed procedure and did her job, the system failed her not the other way around.

  7. Exactly. United isn’t the only airline kicking people off planes. This incident just happened to be recorded.

  8. I’m not sure I agree that the fault lies with the VIP’s with spreadsheets. The pressure to maximize profits is immense and comes from boards and shareholders. This is what unregulated capitalism looks like and with the current war on “job-destroying” regulations going on in D.C., it is only going to get worse. The answer, in my opinion, is to vote out people who want to “deconstruct” government, eliminate the consumer protection office, and allow teachers to pack heat.

    • Really? Ousting the duly elected government will lessen corporations’ drive for profits?

      Very interesting. And, you have a call from Karl Marx on line two, please.

      • @ Chris,

        Well, no, I don’t think a change of government would change a corporations’s drive for profits, but proper regulation just might push through some kind of passengers’ rights. The problem is that airlines are so big now that customers have very limited choices in the market. You might compare this, say, to the utility industry. That’s for-profit too, but regulated in such a way that they don’t shut off your heat and light in the middle of the winter because your check didn’t clear.

        Regulation is not communism.

      • Mike Petonic Says:

        With all due respect (and I have a lot of it for you, Chris), I don’t think that was what Jim was saying. Not directly. There’s a lot of grey area between the wild-west laissez-faire of totally free markets and communism.

        Left to their own devices, businesses do not necessarily self-regulate. Remember acid rain? Our government regulated air pollution and it’s mostly a thing of the past.

        Self-regulation, in the face of increasing pressure to deliver shareholder-value, often takes a back seat. A CEO can either get an feel-good (and non-fungible) ‘Attaboy’ (or ‘Attagirl’ as may be the case) or he can receive RSU’s. Too often, the CEO will take the RSU’s, thank-you-very-much.

        The problem is when the time-horizon for accountability is much shorter than the consequences of action — in those places, we need some degree of regulation for the longer-term interest. Love Canal, Mortgage Crises, etc.

  9. 707Astrojet Says:

    Excellent and perceptive. However, at our company ( mainline) we gate agents are not the least senior or least paid. Note that these occurrences have taken place on regional jet feeder carriers who carry both the brand and the shame.

  10. This whole thing was a mess from the start….I feel sorry for the guy but if 2 cops tell you that you are getting off the plane one would think a normal person would get the hint and leave is quietly as possible…..the police explained the potential outcomes and he agreed to be dragged off if he had to……you have made your point now your just holding up a packed plane…..get off the plane and keep arguing all you want… being forcibly removed from such tight quarters is never going to look pretty… a doctor…and that seems to be a big deal for some reason……he should have known better than most he was at risk for injury……but maybe that is what he was hoping for the whole time.

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