Alexandre de Juniac's blog
  • Passenger experience
  • Safety
16 April 2017

Taking a Wider Stance on Overbooking

Everybody who watched the video of a passenger being dragged off UA flight 3411 earlier this week was shocked. That includes me. Whatever the reason, what happened was clearly unacceptable. And United has recognized that. 

My job is not to be an apologist for a truly regrettable situation. Nor is it to be a judge or arbiter between airlines and their passengers. But I do have the responsibility to defend the reputation of an industry that I am proud to call the business of freedom. And working with our 265 members, IATA’s goal is to make flying safe, efficient and sustainable.

Each day some 10 million passengers board planes. And 100,000 flights will take them safely to wherever they are going, almost always without incident. That is no less than a modern day marvel of technology, coordination and dedication to safety.

Aviation has a big impact on our world. This year will see four billion people and 55 million tonnes of cargo transported safely. Global air transport is so reliable that its positive impact on our daily lives can become invisible—connecting people over great distances, linking businesses to global markets, adding real world experiences to the education of our youth, creating opportunities for jobs that welcome tourists and availing the planet to journeys of exploration.

Aviation is also a challenging business. Every take-off and landing involves complex coordination among many different people. Bad weather, overcrowded infrastructure, strikes, natural disasters, and public health issues are among the long list of events on one side of the world that can lead to disruptions a continent away.

Absolute dedication to safety could see a last minute change of aircraft or a flight delay to fix the problem. And the 63 million people employed in making travel possible are human. Sometimes they make mistakes. In a service business amends need to be made swiftly and with the human touch.

There can be no justification for what we saw on that video. But the response must be more thoughtful than headlines painting an entire industry with the hue of a single and very regrettable incident. 

Many political and opinion leaders have weighed in on a discussion that has gone global with amazing speed. Questions have been raised about passenger rights, procedures for denying boarding to passengers, the actions of local law enforcement, and overbooking practices.

Every accident that is investigated makes aviation safer. We will learn lessons from this too. But at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, the best results will not come out of angry, knee-jerk responses that seek resolution in 140 characters, or a newspaper comment piece written before the entire incident has revealed itself.

Where do we go from here? United has pledged to take immediate concrete action to ensure this never happens again and announced a thorough review of its relevant policies and actions addressing oversold situations and incentivizing volunteers, with a report by 30 April. But, if there is something in this incident that requires changes at an industry level the next step is a robust dialogue. To relieve any cynics out there, that’s not a stall tactic. Rather, it is a proven process to produce the best result. Airlines and governments both want passengers to reach their destination safely, efficiently and without incident. That’s our common goal—and a proven platform to make flying even better.

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