Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Winston Aldworth: What United should do

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With United Airlines stung by PR disaster, Winston Aldworth sees a way forward.
Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport. Photo / Getty Images
Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport. Photo / Getty Images

Hi! Welcome aboard for today's flight! Take a seat! It's great to have you with us! Be sure to fasten your seatbelt ... because you never know when armed proto-fascist thugs are going to beat the hell out of you, tear you from your seat and drag you - bloodied and screaming - down the aisle of the plane! Enjoy! And thanks for flying the friendly skies!

There were no winners in last week's United Airlines PR disaster. A beaten-up doctor. An airline disgraced. Share prices in freefall. Even the airport security guy who dished out the beating has been suspended.

Beaten up by staff while sitting in an plane seat that you'd paid for! Poor old Dr David Dao must have thought he'd unwittingly bought a ticket on Ryanair.

United - like many US carriers - have worked hard in recent times to be rid of their image for poor customer service. When I've flown them lately, I've enjoyed the service.

Mind you, I haven't had the misfortune to be randomly selected for a bruising eviction.

Perhaps these things happened all the time in the pre-social media age. Today, with a legion of smartphones poised to preserve any moment of poor customer relations, this was always going to go global. The airline's disastrous PR response amplified the awfulness. They could have front-footed it, worn their share of responsibility and perhaps even cheekily said they too were shocked by the airport security team's over-reaction.

Pass a bit of the buck to the airport.

The handling of the PR was one disaster, but the selection process itself is awful. Instead of dragging some poor screaming customer off the plane, how about we find a calmer, more rational way to select the passenger who will be compulsorily ejected?

Over-sold flights are common in the US - I've often found myself at the boarding gate and heard the gate agent ask for volunteers (pretty well paid, too - they were offering $1150 to anyone willing to give up their seat on the United flight last week) to miss the flight.

Here's the answer. When passengers are all checked in and the airline knows the flight will be overfilled, weigh all the carry-on bags of passengers as they get on the plane.

Those with the heaviest bags at that point are the first to be evicted.

Random selection seems unfair - even if, as United bluntly put it, they had the legal right to do so.

By basing the eviction routine on the weight of passenger's carry-on luggage, the airlines would be turfing someone who's actually breaching the rules by bringing on a bag that weighs more than 7kg. Straight away, the airline would have the moral high ground.

- NZ Herald

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Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

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