United Takes Revenge on Passenger Videotaping Bad Customer Service

Airline employees have been given too much power in our hyper-security environment. Post-9/11 any customer service disagreement can be viewed through the lens of a potential ‘distraction’ which might precipitate a terrorist attack. Employees call in law enforcement if you don’t respect their authority.

Mr. Leff has been vocal about how airlines have watered down the definition of potential security risks — and not in a good way. “They’ve created a space in which you’re asking crew to evaluate what constitutes a threat,” he said. “Which could include refusing instructions, whatever those may be, which gradually gets interpreted as talking back to a crew member or just being rude, which may be unintentional.”

Videotaping bad interactions has become crucial.

  • Had passengers not videotaped Dr. Dao being dragged off a United flight, airline CEO Oscar Munoz’s original statement — apologizing that customers needed to be ‘re-accommodated’ — would have stood, if any statement had been required at all.

  • Had a Delta flight attendant not been videotaped telling parents of two young children that they were going to have the government take the kids away, we’d have at most a story about passengers not following crew member instructions.

Given the way that customer service has devolved in the airline industry, with confused, mistaken, or poorly served customers treated as criminals by police, videotaping is the only way to ensure fair treatment.

However taking photos or video of anything but ‘personal events’ violates airline rules.

San Francisco-based business development manager Navang Oza learned this the hard way from United.

He was checking in with overweight bags in New Orleans for a flight home. His bags cost him $125 on the outbound, but the agent informed him it would be $300 for the return. Oza videotapes the interaction. The agent tells him he doesn’t have permission to do it, and instructs a colleague to cancel the passenger’s reservation. And the agent takes out her own cell phone to record (this, apparently, is not against the airline’s published rules).

Oza admits he had alcohol in his system from the night before and hadn’t slept much. But possible intoxication wasn’t why the United agent canceled his reservation. Her distaste for the video clip was.

In fact, United’s policy against recording its staff is described under the heading of ‘onboard photo and video policy’ (American Airlines expressly applies its policy to gate and check-in counters as well).

The United agent called the police — something United says they now only do when safety or security is at risk. The officer agreed Oza was permitted to continue to film. The agent, though, informed the passenger that he wouldn’t be allowed to travel on United until the video was erased.

The passenger bought a one way ticket home on another airline. He wants United to reimburse that cost, and allow him to cancel his future United tickets without penalty.

For its part, United says:

The video does not reflect the positive customer experience we strive to offer, and for that we apologize. We are reviewing this situation, including talking with Mr. Oza and our employees to better understand what happened.

We don’t know why the passenger’s bags were going to cost $300 out of New Orleans when he paid $125 in San Francisco. United could well have been right. And the passenger’s judgment may have been impaired. However it does appear that he was peaceful, United called the cops anyway despite their promise not to do so. And based on the video the agent does appear to be cancelling reservations because he filmed and not for some other reason.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. So what actually happens when there is a serious security threat, but employees are too afraid of being reprimanded to act on this breach? Hmm…

  2. Oh Gary I must say I am rather disappointed

    I was so much looking forward to reading the “Lurid Past” , of this passenger?!

    Just like you wrote about Mr. Dao……and then hastily had to delate it all!

    Good to know your learning.

    PS Keep up the rest of the good work.

  3. Doesn’t think she should provide great customer service because she thinks she is important and entitled with the ability to cancel your flight at her will. She will end up broke and alone like many these days from getting caught up in her own irrational power trip games. The garbage man has a higher risk job than she does.

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