Aviation expert criticizes United Airlines over recent fallout

DENVER -- Viral cellphone video of a United Airlines passenger being removed from a plane continues to haunt the Chicago-based company. United executives spent Monday battling a public relations nightmare.

The airline, which uses Denver International Airport as one of its hubs, overbooked a flight that was scheduled to fly from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., on Sunday.

United said four passengers were told to deplane to make room for standby airline employees who needed to get to Kentucky.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is reportedly investigating why the situation was escalated and if United could have handled things differently. While the company’s CEO is standing by his employees, he has also apologized.

In the video, a man can be seen pulled out of his seat by City of Chicago Department of Aviation officers. A United spokesman claimed government guidelines were followed.

“This is not a DOT policy to haul people off an airplane like they’re excess baggage,” aviation expert Steve Cowell said.

Cowell, a former airline pilot, said he’s never seen an incident quite like this one.

“In this case, a very poor customer service job was done,” he said.

The United Express flight, operated by Republic Airlines, was at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

The Republic crew was preparing for a flight to Louisville when passengers say they were told four of them would need to be rebooked to make room for United standby employees.

United said it offered a travel incentive of nearly $1,000 but there were no takers. Four passengers, picked randomly, were told to get off the plane. One refused.

In a statement, United’s CEO apologized for having to rebook the passengers.

According to CNBC, the CEO wrote in an email to employees that the man who was removed raised his voice and refused to comply with crew instructions.

Overbooking flights is not uncommon, but Cowell said Sunday’s response and escalation is uncommon. Cowell said customer service issues will continue to get worse as more airlines contract regional flights for cheaper labor though smaller carriers.

“We have very inexperienced customer relations people that are paid, essentially, what they get paid at McDonald’s,” Cowell said.

Cowell said the airline could’ve continued to increase the travel incentive until enough passengers voluntarily got off the plane.

United said it is investigating what happened. On Monday, the airline admitted there are lessons that employees can learn from the experience.

United said it is reaching out to the passenger who was forcibly removed to resolve the situation.