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Washington College Turbulence on United Airlines Discussion

Washington College Turbulence on United Airlines Discussion

Washington College Turbulence on United Airlines Discussion


Turbulence on United Airlines

The beginning of 2017 was not good for United Airlines. Several incidents involving United Airlines personnel enforcing a variety of rules, regulations, and protocols in employees’ interactions with customers ensued, causing international outcry.

The first incident involved two teenagers who were wearing leggings onto their flight from Minneapolis to Denver. They were stopped by the gate agent and not allowed to board for violating the United Airlines travel perk program. These travel perk passes hinge upon a requirement for users of the passes to dress themselves in such a way that the airline is presented in a favorable light. United defended its decision via Twitter, noting “Legging are not inappropriate attire except in the case of someone traveling as a pass rider.” Comedian Seth Rogan tweeted, “We here at United are just trying to police the attire of the daughters of our employees! That’s all! Cool, right?”

A second, more severe incident occurred when David Dao, a doctor who needed to see his patients the following morning, was aboard a Louisville bound flight from Chicago in April. Four United employees needed to get to Louisville last-minute and it was announced that four people needed to give up their seats or else the flight would be cancelled. Attendants called the police after no one complied, who approached Dao in aggressive manager, forcibly removing him from the plane (he suffered a broken nose and concussion after his head smashed into an armrest). United policy allowed for the involuntary removal of passengers from flights, although this time United was not as defensive. Dao later filed a lawsuit against United for their actions.

A third incident, in Houston involved a to-be-married couple, Michael and Amber, headed to Costa Rica for their wedding. When they entered the plane, they noticed a man sleeping in the row where their seats were assigned. Instead of disturbing him, they found some seats three rows up and sat there instead. They were soon asked by an attendant to return to their seats and they complied. A U.S. Marshall approached them soon after and ejected them from the plane. According to United statements, the couple kept “repeatedly” trying to sit in upgraded seats and would not follow the instructions of the attendants and crew members, and, as such, they were within their power to eject the passengers.

These incidents suggest that, starting with the structure as laid forth by the CEO, United employees’ do not have much latitude or flexibility to deal with day-to-day policy breaches. Cost-minimization and efficiency-boosting strategies, when taken overboard, also may have had an effect given that the focus drifted from the customer and toward rule following. Many attribute this inflexibility to the strict, rule-following bureaucracy that has been set forth by United leaders. In this bureaucracy, their 85,000 employees may be reluctant to deviate from the rules—intra-company historical precedent suggests that many employees face termination when breaking the rules.

Sources: S. Carey, “Behind United Airlines’ Fateful Decision to Call Police;
Airline’s Rules-Based Culture in Spotlight After Man Was Dragged off Flight by
Law Enforcement,” The Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2017, J. Disis and J. Ostrower, “United Airlines in Twitter Trouble Over Leggings Rule,” CNN Money, March 27, 2017,; A. Hartung,
“Why United Airlines Abuses Customers: The Risks of Operational Excellence,” Forbes, April 10, 2017,; M. Hiltzik, “At United Airlines and Wells Fargo, Toxic Corporate Culture Starts With the CEO,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 2017,;
E. C. McLaughlin, “Man Dragged off United Flight Has Concussion, Will File Suit, Lawyer Says.”

Stephen P. Robbins (San Diego State University) and Timothy A. Judge (The Ohio State University). Organizational Behavior. (18th Edition). 2019. Pearson Education Inc. ISBN-13: 978-0-13-47293-29.

Please provide your thoughts on the following questions?

Do you think that United Airlines was within its power to have removed these people from the flight? Why or why not? What are the pros and cons of having a bureaucratic organizational structure for an airline?

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