By now you’ve probably seen the video of a screaming passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight in Chicago. The story has outraged people around the world and created a PR disaster for United.
📈’Volunteer’ means “someone who does something without being forced to do it.” https://t.co/qNAcMyplhZ
— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) April 11, 2017
United is not doing itself any favors. CEO Oscar Munoz doubled down on the airline’s position in an email sent to employees that expressed no empathy for the removed passenger and called his behavior “disruptive and belligerent.” Munoz said he regrets that the situation occurred, but he praised United employees for following established protocols.
One notable word missing from Munoz’s email: “overbooking.” The airline industry’s practice of selling more seats on a flight than there are available has been widely attributed to this incident and the pros and cons of overbooking thoroughly analyzed. TIME asks, should overbooking flights be illegal?
What happened on United flight 3411 was not caused by overbooking. In his email to employees, Munoz says the flight was “fully boarded,” an important distinction. He says crew members approached United’s gate agents after all passengers were onboard and told them they needed to board the flight.
If you have friends who work in the aviation industry, you may have heard them use a lesser known word to describe this situation: deadheading.
What is Deadheading?
Deadheading is airline industry jargon to describe crew members who are traveling as passengers for work purposes. The term likely comes from the 19th century to describe theatergoers admitted for free, typically because of a service they performed such as posting flyers. If you google it, much of the results will link to gardening sites (it also means removing faded flowers to promote new blooms).
At the blog Up, Up, and Away, a flight attendant explains deadheading:
A dead head is an airline crew member, a pilot or a cabin crew, who is assigned to fly to a particular destination to assume a duty. In the flight where he or she is in, she’s not supposed to work as a crew. He or she shall be in a complete uniform, thus making him or her able to sit on a jumpseat if the flight is full. Deadheading crew are also paid based on their flying time.
A dead head crew is different from a non-revenue. Crew member who use non-rev tickets are using their company’s benefits for their personal travels. If a flight is full and there are no available jumpseats, a deadheading crew can bump off a revenue passenger. However if the flight is full, a revenue passenger or a non-rev crew cannot bump off a deadhead.
Deadheading crew members are typically being repositioned to work another flight. On United flight 3411, four crew members were needed in Louisville to operate a flight the next day.
The airline industry doesn’t use the word publicly, and, unlike overbooking, it doesn’t appear anywhere on airline websites or in the passenger’s contract of carriage.
Should Deadheading be Illegal?
No. In fact, deadheading seems less shady than overbooking a flight because it serves a valid purpose that most passengers can easily understand. No one is going to question why a crew member is needed somewhere else to operate a flight. A spokesperson for United, Erin Benson, told USA Today that if its four crew members did not make it to Louisville, it would have a “domino effect” that could result in flights being cancelled.
Despite the rationale, airlines should be more passenger-centric when it comes to deadheading crew members. For starters, don’t “re-accommodate” passengers already seated on the plane. Once a passenger has boarded the aircraft, it should be off-limits to force them to give up their seat for a deadheading crew member. United knew its crew was needed in Louisville. It should have bumped passengers at the gate.
There were a number of other things United could have done to prevent this ugly situation. It should have continued increasing compensation for volunteers instead of resorting to forcibly removing passengers. It should have deadheaded its crew members on earlier flights to Louisville, or if that wasn’t possible, it should have flown them on another airline — the airlines have agreements with one another to provide huge discounts for employees, and there were plenty of flights to Louisville. Finally, the airlines should limit the number of deadheading crew members on a full flight. Forcing four paying passengers to give up their seats is an unreasonable expectation that is bound to cause an uproar. On flight 3411, the first three passengers selected to leave the plane complied without incident, but a security issue arose with the fourth.
Ultimately, deadheading is a necessity for running an airline, but United should have a better procedure for getting its crew where it needs to be. Hopefully, this incident will force it and other airlines to rethink their deadheading policies.