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United Breaks Guitars and a passenger's face. Can their PR get worse?

Editorial Staff

It takes a special kind of stupid to let a passenger board an aircraft, take his seat - and then tell him to get off because the flight is over-booked. But that is nothing compared to sending three large "security" officers to physically drag him, kicking and screaming, off the plane.

Oscar Munoz, United's CEO, who spends half his time trying to prevent his staff walking off the job and the other half apologising for his staff, said "“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

Let's de-obfuscate the management-speak and see what he's really saying.

"Oh, shit, that's a major cock up. We have x seats but we booked x plus and then, instead of stopping people at the gate, we let them on the plane then tried to sort it out. But we're going to say there's an inquiry and then we'll blame the computers so our staff don't look as crap as we really know they are. And we're going to locate the man we manhandled and say we are sorry and give him some air-miles."

How crap are the staff? This official statement shows just how massively they messed up.

"Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate We apologize for the overbook situation." They mean "over-booking" but anyone who calls the police to a passenger who has legitimately boarded a plane and says "possession is nine-tenths of the law" can't be expected to use common sense, much less good grammar.

But as the story unfolded, it becomes even more ridiculous. The flight was not overbooked with passengers: what was really happening was that four of the airline's employees were being transferred to Louisville for a flight. So rather than overbooking per se, this was an operational decision. The airline asked for four volunteers to switch to a flight almost 24 hours later. United made an announcement that it would pay for a hotel, plus USD400 per passenger. When there was no response, the airline increased the offer to USD800. It still persisted in pushing the line that the flight was overbooked.

Still no one volunteered so, the airline says, it "randomly selected" four passengers and told them to disembark. One, apparently a doctor who was to be on duty the following morning and therefore would miss his duty time if he delayed, said he could not change flights. The airline called in the heavies. There are signs of passive resistance but no forcible resistance, other than screaming, from the victim.

There is video but it's on Facebook and we do not encourage our readers to use that platform.

The incident was aboard a Louisville-bound plane before take-off at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

Here's an eye-witness account

Facts are dribbling out - some of which seem potentially overstaring things. And if they aren't the situation is even worse than it first seemed.

The man is, reportedly, almost 70 years old and suffered facial injuries in what can only, in those circumstances, be considered an unjust use of force and an assault by the airline and its staff.


This video of the incident shows the extent of the damage caused to the man:


Reportedly he reboarded the aircraft .. this video shows the state he was in


And all because a standby crew was out of position.

Can Munoz say anything, clearly, to reduce the impact of this one or will he continue to spout management-speak in the hope that no one really understands what he's talking about? Or will he once more find himself in the pincer-movement between airline staff who act disgracefully and the interests of customers, forced to act in the interests of shareholders?

It's a thankless task, even worse than heading Yahoo! or HP.

And much as we hate to promote twitter .. lots of users have suggested some very funny new mottos for United.


We especially like "we have red-eye, and black-eye flights available" and "Comply with me."