When my partners and I created the Justice Speakers Institute, the main goal was to work to improve justice throughout the world but, admittedly, I also wanted the opportunity to travel. As a result, I purchase a lot of airline tickets flying from Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a Delta hub.
I have had my share of delayed flights, lost luggage and shrinking seating, yet it wasn’t until yesterday, while watching the video of the United Airlines passenger, that I realized I had never read an airline contract for carriage. As a judge and lawyer I have read thousands of contracts, so perhaps I should have read the the forty-five page United contract or the seventy page Delta contract at some point before buying a ticket.
Perhaps if I had done so, I would not have been so shocked by that video. I would have known that airlines can deny a passenger the right to board an airplane in accordance with their ticket if the flight is overbooked. By federal regulation they must seek volunteers, however, if they still need additional seats the contract gives them the right to deny the necessary number of passengers entry onto the airplane.
I also would have also known that neither contract defines the term boarding. When a contract does not define a term, the law requires that it be interpreted by its most common meaning. Also, if there is a conflict about the common meaning of a word, the benefit of the doubt is always given to the person who did not write the contract. Dr. Dao the United passenger was already in his seat on the plane and so was not boarding.
With all the passengers in their seats United’s management decided to remove four of them to make room for employees. Contrary to United’s initial statement this was not overbooking. Overbooking occurs when airlines sell more than the available number of seats to passengers.
Finally, no contact gives a party the right to assault another party. So, it does not appear United’s contract will protect it from Dr. Dao’s inevitable lawsuit.
Still, the contract does tend to explain the initial statement by United’s president Oscar Munoz, blaming the passenger for the incident. He apologized for having to “re-accommodate” the passengers, a word bereft of any meaning. He later described Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.” Under United’s contract if a passenger is disorderly the airline has the right to remove that person to ensure the safety of the crew and other passengers.
In reality, Munoz’s statements appeared to be designed to protect United from a lawsuit. The focus was all about the bottom line. It was only when the resulting uproar depressed United’s stock by almost a billion dollars that Munoz admitted United had mistreated a passenger. This is telling in terms of United’s corporate culture.
Writing in Forbes, Adam Hartung an expert on business growth, stated United’s culture had “become so focused on efficiency, cost cutting and business operations that they forget about customers…”
Corporate cultures are not created overnight. Cultures take time to emerge, so it is no surprise that this is not the first time that a passenger has been threatened in order to get them to give up their seat. Recently a United passenger who paid $1,000 for a first-class ticket was threatened with handcuffs and arrest to make them surrender that seat. Such cultural practices mean that United Airlines is the recipient of 43 percent of all consumer complaints registered with the United States Department of Transportation.
Delta Is Different
Delta, with similar contract language, does not have this cultural problem. Starting in 2011, when passengers checked in on a flight that has been overbooked, they are offered the opportunity to be bumped and asked what voucher dollar value they would accept to surrender their seat. By the time the passengers are at the gate, the attendants have a list of those who will fly standby. These people do not board the plane. Psychology and contractually there is a significant difference between not boarding a plane and being ejected from it.
It is not a contact nor the law, that resulted in Dr Dao’s mistreatment. It is United’s culture. When upper level management is not thinking about the customer, it does not take long for that to filter down. Once the staff stops thinking about the customer, something rotten will almost certainly happen.
This story was first published in Deadline Detroit. Reprinted with permission.