Hong Kong airline staff say United’s passenger booting incident unheard of locally and can be easily avoided

Practice of offloading passengers is not uncommon, but situation is usually settled before boarding

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2017, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 April, 2017, 6:54pm

The move by United Airlines to violently drag a paying passenger off a flight to make space for employees seeking transportation is unheard of in Hong Kong and can be easily avoided, local aviation insiders have said.

Under similar circumstances, passengers will be notified of the situation and asked to take another flight before boarding commences, therefore averting any embarrassment for both the airline and customer, according to local industry members.

They also said this had always been the practice and passengers mostly accepted the airlines’ offer of monetary compensation and a free hotel stay.

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A Cathay Pacific ground staff who declined to be named said his company could always easily find volunteers to give up their seats in return for compensation and a later flight.

If there were no volunteers, senior members of staff would randomly pick passengers at the check-in counters, before boarding, he said.

“No matter how reluctant the passengers are, they will have to accept the reality that there are no more seats on the flight,” the staff member said.

Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation chairwoman Carol Ng Man-yee said that it was not uncommon for airlines to offload passengers to make way for cabin crew members rostered for other flights at the destination.

This can happen if flight attendants are needed urgently at certain locations to fill in for colleagues who have clocked the legal working hours limit for the day, under aviation safety regulations.

In such situations, ground staff in Hong Kong will then look for volunteers at check-in counters or boarding gates to take a later flight – and not after all passengers have boarded a plane.

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“It is a matter of how much monetary compensation the airline is willing to offer. It is all about the amount of compensation,” Ng said.

On Sunday night, videos posted on Facebook and Twitter showed a man physically dragged down the aisle of a plane scheduled to leave Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky.

He was reportedly a Chinese American doctor who refused to give up his seat because he said he had patients to see in Louisville the following morning.

Airline staff had randomly picked four customers to leave the plane. Three others complied.

When the fourth passenger refused, police were called in.

Officers pulled the man from his window seat and after a scuffle which resulted in him bleeding, dragged him down the cabin aisle amid cries from other horrified passengers for them to stop.

Following a wave of outrage from internet users, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement that stopped short of an apology, saying only that the airline had to “re-accommodate these customers”.

Referring to the incident, Dora Lai, chairwoman of the 7,200-member Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union, also said it was not difficult to look for volunteers before boarding.

“We will usually offer monetary compensation and free accommodation for passengers who are willing to take another flight. The compensation can be as much as the cost of the flight,” she said.

“Some passengers may ask for an upgrade and it is all a matter of negotiation. It is really not difficult to find a volunteer.”

Alan Yu Yen-heng, a Hong Kong radio journalist now based in Philadelphia, encountered an overbooking incident on his Cathay Pacific flight a few years ago, but the matter was resolved at the boarding gate.

Yu was preparing to board a flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong when Cathay staff appealed for three to four volunteers to switch to another flight.

“They said the flight was overbooked and they apologised for it. They said they needed a few people to take another flight and would offer free accommodation and monetary compensation,” Yu said.

“It was resolved in 10 minutes. I felt that the staff members were sincere in resolving the matter.”

A Cathay Pacific spokesman said the airline may also overbook its services “to minimise the effect of no-show passengers”.

“By careful monitoring and control we do our utmost to match the number of available seats to the number of passengers that we reasonably expect will appear for the flight,” he said.

The airline would make alternative flight arrangements for concerned passengers before boarding commences, he added