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Airlines Change Terms and Conditions Following the United Airlines Debacle

On June 23, United Airlines completed the legal changes to their Contract of Carriage—a contract which all passengers flying with United must agree to in order to purchase a ticket. The update to the terms and conditions was an an attempt prevent a similar situation like the forcible removal of of Dr. Dao, which took place two months earlier. The effects of the incident have rippled throughout the airline industry, and a number of major airlines have made substantial changes to their own policies following the events which took place. Let’s take a look at the changes made by the Big Three:


United Airlines

On April 26, Hugo Martin of the Los Angeles Times reported an announcement of several changes that United promised to make to their company policies. Several of the changes were finally written into their Contract of Carriage more than two months after they were first announced. According to Martin, United Airlines will now:

  • Offer up to $10,000 for passengers to give up their seat voluntarily.
  • Limit the use of law enforcement on a plane, except for safety and security reasons.
  • Stop forcing passengers already seated to give up their seats, except for safety or security reasons.
  • Come up with creative solutions for finding alternative transportation for passengers who have been denied boarding, such as flying them from nearby airports, putting them on flights of rival airlines or using ground transportation.
  • Ensure airline crews book a seat at least an hour before departure.
  • Provide employees with additional annual training.
  • Create an automated system for soliciting volunteers to change travel plans before they take their seat.
  • Reduce the amount of overbooking.
  • Empower employees to resolve customer service issues on the spot.
  • Cut the red tape that passengers face when reporting lost luggage.

One of the criticisms following the announcement of these changes is the extremely vague and subjective nature of many of the terms. As a result of the phrasing of the promises made by United, there is no way for the airline to be held accountable for many of the promises that they made to customers. For example, within United’s Contract of Carriage, there is no actual reference to the amount that the airline will offer to customers to give up a seat voluntarily. Rather, it states “UA will request Passengers who are willing to relinquish their confirmed reserved space in exchange for compensation in an amount determined by UA (including but not limited to check or an electronic travel certificate). The travel certificate will be valid only for travel on UA or designated Codeshare partners for one year from the date of issue and will have no refund value.”

Although it sounds good to make these improvements, the lack of legal implications and the continued challenges that United seems to have in securing the safety of their passengers,  [read about the latest incident here] reflect that the airline may be more focused on damage control for the airline’s reputation among passengers and shareholders following the incident involving Dr. Dao than on making actual improvements for customers.


Delta Air Lines

United was not the only player in the airline industry to make changes to their policy following the incident involving Dr. Dao. CBS News reported that with regard to overbooked flights, in order for passengers to voluntarily give up their seat, Delta Air Lines will now give permission for:

  • Gate agents to offer $2,000 (up from $800); and
  • Supervisors to offer up to $9,950 (up from $1,350)

Interestingly enough, Delta announced their plans to offer up to nearly $10,000 to passengers to volunteer their seat before United did so, which has led to speculation that United only did so to match Delta’s offer.

American Airlines

The Washington Post reported that American Airlines too had a response to the incident involving Dr. Dao, a promise that no passenger of theirs who has boarded a plane will be removed to give up their seat for someone else.

The major changes that have come from airlines besides United reflect a change in the posture of the airline industry as a whole in response to the public relations nightmare which United had to face. This incident was a powerful demonstration that it only takes one incident for a company to reconsider its terms and conditions with their customers.  

Evan Knox is a 3rd Year Business Administration Major at Georgia Tech and an Undergraduate Research Assistant for REUL Lab.

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