Outsourcing Flights: Was the United Airlines Fiasco Also a Supplier Management Mishap?

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In the unlikely case you missed the United Airlines fiasco that’s been all over the news this week, here’s a quick summary. Passengers traveling on an April 9 flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky had all boarded the plane when United decided to remove four passengers to accommodate flight crew. One man who was selected refused to leave the plane. The result was three security officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation came onboard, and one forcibly yanked the passenger out of his seat and dragged him on his back by his hands down the aisle, while horrified passengers protested. Later, the man was allowed to reboard, his face bloodied. The videos went viral, of course.

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United reportedly offered up to $1,000 in compensation to passengers who would be willing to take a later flight. But after no one volunteered, the airline selected four passengers based primarily on the prices of the tickets they bought. As airlines’ compensation rates are based on ticket price, it makes sense for them to go after passengers who bought the cheapest tickets.

Whose Fault Was It?

People have pointed fingers at United for pulling passengers off after they have boarded; at the security officers who didn’t think it inappropriate to drag a 69-year-old man by his hands; at the passenger himself for not complying with airline policy — but who reads those policies when booking tickets, anyway?

But our question is this: How much of the blame also goes to Republic Airline, the regional partner that operated the flight? If you’ve flown in North America or the Caribbean, chances are good that you’ve been on a Republic Airline flight. They operate more than 850 flights daily, and, if you’re curious, you can see their route map below. American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express are all operated by Republic Airline, and, yes, the Chicago-Louisville flight was indeed United Express.

In other words, one can argue that this situation is also a supplier issue. Republic Airline is one of the U.S.’ two biggest regional airlines (the other is SkyWest), and major airlines like United often outsource short-haul flights to regional airlines. As travel writer Ben Schlappig explained it, major airlines are motivated by cost savings to outsource flights. Regional airlines are able to hire less-experienced pilots at a fraction of what major airlines pay, and these pilots have the chance to build up their work experience before seeking a job with a major airline.

Since regional airlines generally get paid a fixed rate for routes, United and other major airlines pocket the profit — as well as the risk. You could boycott United (as many incensed travelers have declared they will do), but if you wanted to boycott Republic Airline, you would also have to look at the fine print when you book American or Delta.

“Boycotting United in this case would be not so dissimilar from boycotting Apple because of behavior at its contract manufacturers like Foxconn,” said Jason Busch, founder and managing director at Spend Matters. “This is further proof that the behavior and practices of your suppliers are, by extension, your behavior as well.”

However, we can’t quite blame Republic Airline for this mess. Although the crew members for whom the four passengers were requested to make room were Republic Airline crew, we don’t know whether it was a Republic employee or a United one who made the call to involve security.

The only thing that’s clear for now is this: United is taking the hit, and it’s got a classic PR nightmare on its hands.

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Voices (2)

  1. Jon Smyth:

    Also not mentioned is that apparently the doctor was politely as to step off the aircraft at which point he curled up his fist and hit one of the officers. At that point the airline has to step aside and the legal authorities are law enforcement takes over. Not understood it is why they chose to drag him off the way they did knowing that the video cameras were going. Also this was as mentioned an Outsource carrier without Source employees. Apparently not a Mainline United representative present at all. And yet United made the pathetic apology for the actions of the officers and the doctor. Of course the media shows to cherry-pick the part of the story that would gain them the greatest ratings. This does seem to be the way the system works. Unfair to United

  2. Craig:

    Ding Ding Ding! We have a winner!
    Nice work, Sydney. Amazing how Republic has escaped any blame for this. It was a Republic jet flown by a Republic crew, and the decision to board 4 dead heading Republic crewmembers at the last minute was made by Republic management.
    Yet the blame for what amounts to a case of police brutality falls squarely on United? As you pointed out, it’s an outsourcing issue, and Republic is used by UAL, AMR, and DAL. Delta cancelled 3500 flights in the 5 days prior to Dr Dao’s incident and had thousands of denied boardings, but one video is all it takes.

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