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. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that UA has simply lost control of its employees. Memos and apologies no longer work. Only disciplinary action will.

  2. I’m so happy these airline employees are being held accountable for their shotty attitude!

  3. I am seeing a recurrent theme: the poor training that employees undergo in company policy.

    At one time I worked as a customer service rep for The Telephone Company, when it was a huge corporate monstrosity. We were governed under many laws and we were restricted in what we could and could not do to our customers. In fact, how we treated our customers was so important that out of a full 8 week training program we spent ONE WEEK learning the rules, rights, and regulations that we were supposed to explain to our customers; how to de-esculate a potentially unpleasant (and possibly threatening situation), with hours spent in role-playing; when to call for a supervisor, who, if still unable to resolve the situation, was instructed to call “Legal” immediately, as there was always an on-call attorney to answer queries and complaints.

    It amazes me that airlines, especially the Big 3, do not have the same standardization of training for front-end employees. Yes, the initial training may be more costly, but the end result is almost always a win/win for both company and customer.

  4. American airlines check in agent at LGA called police on us when I took a picture of her so I have her name tag. She claimed I was threatening her safety. Her manager said we will be forever banned from flying American if I didn’t delete the picture. I stated I was calling corporate to complain and the rude agent retorted: “go ahead, they can’t do anything to me, I’m union.” Corporate’s response was they would “investigate” but nothing else was said beyond that.

  5. If Reagan could fire all of the air traffic controllers then surely Munoz can fire all of United’s front line staff and start over. The customer service (for lack of a better term) at that airline is just rotten to the core.

  6. What United needs to do Is put a customer feedback system in place and fire agents with consistently bad reviews. They need to cut the bad attitudes.

  7. It is the militarization of our society. Those in “uniform” have the power.

    Since when did poor customer service become an opportunity to threaten, to deny service and possibly jail the consumer?

    Unfortunately, the ability to question poor service and unreasonable over reaching is being lost to those who seek to control our lives and our resources. Maintenance of schedule (for them) and uniformity requires that we submit for the common good.

    To paraphrase: those willing to cede personal freedom for security gain neither.

  8. Yeah, I don’t see how this CEO is going to last much longer. They are under a microscope now and their years of poor training are going to be impossible to camouflage.

  9. Yep. Use law enforcement to settle ordinary customer service disputes. And concoct some requirement that one have permission to tape you in a public forum. Somehow people in positions of public visibility in other industries do not think they have these arrows in their quiver, yet those in the airline industry think they are all powerful.

  10. “Now why would airline employees not want to be recorded? Hmmm…..”

    Same reason cops don’t like recorded…

  11. I tend to agree with the agent. She should not be filmed without her permission. Being in the airport or on an airplane doesn’t matter to me in terms of the policy. Whipping out your phone and pressing record is the easiest way to escalate the situation.

    I’m a physician and have run into this issue when consulting on patients. I generally allow them to audio record me but not video. But they must ask permission first. I make a distinction because I really don’t want to see myself on Facebook or YouTube. I think the audio recording is helpful for when the patients go home and try to absorb all the information. Maybe it’s naive but I’m not so concerned about being sued…should be a personal choice though. That airline employee is now all over the web and it does not appear that she did anything to justify mistreatment by the flyer.

  12. The problem is that the airlines transport hundreds of thousands of passengers a day. Given how stressful air travel can be, the odds are good that several hundred will have terrible experiences. If a handful of these post there stuff online and it goes viral, “the world” starts to think air travel is much worse than it really is. Kind of how folks can think that weird crime is rampant because it keeps appearing on the sensationalized local TV news.

    I don’t know how this ends. My guess is that eventually “the audience” gets tired of these stories. Kind of how they got tired of those TV singing competitions.

    To me, a much bigger story is what happened in FLL with the wildcat Spirit pilot strike. That’s a problem that could truly affect thousands of travelers if it continues. A much bigger deal than some guy not wanting to pay his overweight baggage charges.

  13. I actually looked at the data: the USA airlines have about 1.8 million passengers a DAY. Even if they were doing a fabulous job, wouldn’t you think that 1 in every 1000 passengers is going to have an absolutely horrible experience? That’s 1,800 people a day who can share their upsetting viral videos. Do you think you could run an airline where nobody ever had a bad experience? I’m sure I couldn’t. Air travel is hard and sometimes stressful, and things will go wrong. And that’s the problem with the current media frenzy.

  14. Have any of you received a threatening phone call late at night, at your home, from a customer who didn’t like something that had happened that day, over which you had no control?
    When you receive these calls please remember, the customer is always right, and in today’s society the customer can find you anywhere you might be! And also that you are responsible for the actions of thousands of other people, pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, customer service agents, why even the weather is you responsibility.
    This may ‘upset’ some folks; but it does happen.

  15. i wonder if cost-cutting across airlines included salary reduction so good common-sense capable agents are replaced with lesser and cheaper ones, and this is the results on display.

  16. This needs to be nipped in the bud immediately. When police first tried suppressing citizen video there was such outrage that many cities passed laws saying citizens have the right to video interactions with police, and then put cams on the officers and their cars to force-record their actions. Everyone agreed that trying to suppress this is an un-American outrage in support of continued abuse.

    There was never any question who the good guys are in this issue, and United either needs to get on the right side of this or the CEO needs to be pressed on it with no ability to deflect, on camera, until he clarifies that customers will not have their right to record interactions suppressed with more jackboot police power. Stockholders need to do this if the media will not. The agent who acted out this Little Hitler outrage needs to be fired and held up as an example. Media??

    Clarify this NOW, Oscar-with-the-billion-dollar-egg-still-on-your-face! You are already being used in business schools as the object lesson in hideously bad management! Are you doubling down on being the worst CEO in modern history?

  17. From my limited experience with the Airlines, but a lot of experience in different industries, it my opinion that this all stems from the top. Incompetence at the top breeds incompetence at the bottom, what do we say when we see a bad child acting up “The fruit does not fall far from the tree” whatever those at the top are downing will be what those at the bottom doing. Whens the last time anyone wrote a CEO of airlines and CEO actually got off the arse and called the person back and personally resolved the problem.
    I was in sales and marketing for years working for big and small companies, it was my experience whatever the culture of the leader was, was the culture of my co-workers. At some places I was told I went too far in fixing problems, but my customers always complimented and called my bosses and told if I had not went the extra they would have cancelled their business.
    You combined short time next quarters personal bonus or stock options thinking with sweetheart union contracts and you have the Big three US airlines on Big three car makers, same mentality ignore the customers complaints and ask uncle sugar for more bailout money, just different industries.

  18. Good for United!! It clearly states you are not to record or take pictures of employees, yet passengers seem to believe they can violate this policy every time they disagree or do not like the answer they get from employees.

  19. Question, his bag cost was airport charge. Or did he purchase online at lower cost for leaving on departure. Second, all he had to do was pay the difference and settle later with a phone call to customer service assistance. Video taping is not allowed due to disrupting the safety of agents and customers . Remember, since 9 11, it is all about safety. Anyone interrupting this safety is breaking rule.

  20. I think the behaviors of the airlines suggest that we need to re-regulate the air sector again and nationalize all the planes, give everyone fair wages, low fares, and get back to work.

  21. Videotaping someone – anyone – close-up (as opposed to tourist crowd scenes) should require the person’s consent in order to be legal. In this internet age someone’s privacy and life can be destroyed over what is often a misleading and incomplete picture.

  22. I love how he public “assumes” why authority is called. Authority is called when fars are violated. It appears YOU want to call the shots and that is the issue. Who should he in authority while 35000 feet in the air with a passenger qho does like authority?!!

  23. control freaks, may have lacked authority in childhood, not unlike some, not all, people that pursue work in the police force.

  24. While I have worked in customer service, so I can sympathize, I think these employees are rude.

  25. Very troubled by yet another example of an airline employee getting and attitude and going on a power trip. This woman is WAY too old to be acting like a child. Threatening to cancel the ticket and calling the police are two actions that I believe warrant her being fired. Enough is enough.

  26. I don’t think anyone should be photographed or videotaped without permission. Put yourself in their shoes. Would u want someone coming into your job and doing that. We are not being shown the whole story in most of these videos, the video starts rolling after the situation has already escalated and doesn’t show how it began. This guy was clearly still intoxicated in my opinion with his slow speech.

  27. So it’s ok for customers to be rude and ignorant and record people without their consent passengers have became more and more ignorant and want everything for free just looking to get rich of someone else’s back

  28. I voted with my $’s today…..Although united is a major carrier on the route I’m flying, I bought a more expensive ticket on another airline. IMO, they don’t deserve my business, even at a lower price.

  29. I think the whiney ass customers need to quit picking on the employees. They are just doing their jobs. Start taking responsibility for your own actions. How would you like it if someone put a camera in your face when your just trying to do your job. Who is to say this man didn’t pack extras in his bag to go back with. If you have issues i.e.: checked bag fees, legroom, bathroom size, no food, whatever take them up with corporate. The front line employees have no control of that. It’s time to grow up and quit whining. Trust me the employees would prefer you to be happy. It would make there job easier.

  30. The passenger did not accept the amount he need to pay to check his lugagge, so the passenger started with the bad sttitude not the agent , so.

  31. @John – Here you have the typical ignoramus who wouldn’t understand his own interest if you explained it to him. Documenting an abusive airline agent who’s threatening to have social services take away your kids in order to protect yourself, somehow means the customer is wanting to get rich!? Hello? How did you get from one to the other without an ignoramus mentality larded with prejudice? This is how right wing monsters are able to swindle know-nothings out of their family’s health care coverage to give the money to the rich. It’s the big bad black boogeyman who’s trying to get something free, so vote against your own health care or other protection because stoking your own morbidly obese prejudices is more important than protecting yourself!

  32. Thats ignorant. You label personnel control freaks because you believe you’re entittles and above the rules and regulations, set by FAA?

  33. I’ve appreciated the comments about training. In my profession I am in positions where confrontations could escalate into serious problems at just about any moment any day. I get trained and retrained regularly in human relations. It is assumed I know what to do to avoid a difference of opinion turning into a crisis.

    I think that a system in which every difference of opinion conveniently can become labeled a security threat in the mind of a power hungry crew member is a bad one. I think every time a customer is removed from a plane or has a ticket but isn’t allowed on the plane for “security” reasons,, the employee who makes such a decision should be required to fill out a detailed report – not necessarily right that second if it would cause disruption to the flight schedule, but within 24 hours – and the passenger should be invited to do the same. It would be clear pretty quickly to the airline who the hotheads are who are unable to handle situations thoughtfully, and what types of incidents are provoking these confrontations.

    Yes, it’s all part of the growing security state that’s quickly chipping away at what makes a free society.

  34. There is no FAR on videotaping an employee. The airline employees on here (and on the plane) are either (1) making stuff up to justify their bad behavior and their airline’s poor policies or (2) believe too much of the “galley talk” they were engaging in while failing to give Gary his pre-departure beverage. There is absolutely no way to say that this agent’s action, for example, rises to the level of “a crewmember’s instruction,” which is subject to a FAR.

    The bottom line is that United again called the police on a customer for something that was not against the law. It is not against the law to videotape someone else in public. Period. End of story. The agent, of course, could refuse to perform any services, speak, or engage with someone unless the videotaping was stopped (or deleted). United could also have a policy that prohibits someone from violating its policies from flying on United, including it’s videotaping policies. It is legitimate to criticize those policies too. But what United has pledged not to do is call the police in situations like this – and that’s what it did. What’s different, and what is likely to be different going forward, is that the police told United to pound sand.

    The airlines are not going to be able to get away with policies that prevent customers from videotaping, not when everyone walks around with a smartphone. This is going to cause tension with airline employees who will claim that it is a safety issue. While there are some legitimate safety issues, most of the times the reasons for the video and the reasons that employees don’t want to be videoed have nothing to do with safety. People want to record for their vlog; Or they want to record a poor experience; Or a good experience. How this shakes out, I’m not sure but I’m thinking that pure enforcement of anti video policies has become impossible.

  35. Greg, right on…I’m sure John is the ignoramus you say he is. But we will be getting rid of these right wingers in the next election much to the chagrin of white supremacists nationwide

  36. Every airline prohibit videotaping ctew members and staff. The reason passengers whip out their phones to video is they are violating or dislike the Fars and other reules and regulations of the airlines and want to claim the staff is wrong when the staff is following regulations. Passengers, not all, nut the entitled feel they are above all that!!

  37. You all want great customer service right? Learn how to be a good customer!

  38. Brian is right. This is the next step in the real world. Thank goodness people violated the rule against cell phone use during flights on September 11th.
    Eventually the airlines figured out that a total ban on cell phone use on a plane was unenforceable, so now a reasonable use standard is in place.

    Videotaping bans are unenforceable, so all that remains is to count the weeks and months until they are rescinded or no longer invoked. Meanwhile, personal cell phone videotaping will continue, because that’s what a curious, independently acting free people will do.

    And don’t forget. Airports are bristling with continuously recording cameras. . .

  39. Seems to me nobody has pointed out the most important fact in the post: the policeman supported the citizen! They are now assessing the situation professionally and will not be acting as mere goons for United, thus neutralizing the staff.

  40. The only way to put Untied (or any other airline) in their place is for ALL of us to stop booking reservations on them for a day, a week, or even a month.

    Once this happens and they all lose millions in revenue to other companies, they “may” bend and throw up the white “surrender” flag and admit they’re in the wrong.

    Nothing is going to change with any airline customer service position until THEIR CHIEF acknowledges there are major customer service problems, lays down the law, tells their supervisors and front-line staff (and onboard crew) this is how we are going to run our company: with dignity, respect for our customers, and our fellow team members, and fires those who don’t comply with their company CEO/Chairman’s orders. Period.

    I work in the travel industry, and if I ever talked or acted like this to one of our customers, I’d be fired on the spot.

    This inexcusable lack of customer service (and lack of kindness to the customer – who is paying THEIR salary) has gone too far.

    I’ve had enough.

  41. Yes, it’s true that if you toady up to them and always be polite and wear a big fake smile, they will take this as a cue that you’re off limits for their ire – as well as often give you what you’re asking for or more. But the point is that customers shouldn’t have to be trained to get decent treatment and avoid a company’s representative’s venting at you, sometimes daring you to talk back to them like an abuser. I’ve seen it enough that I identified it as a fatal flaw in their training and operations 20 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse. The fact that I can navigate around it and stay clear is not germane to this being outrageous behavior. They’ve gone beyond Saturday Night Live parody. It’s sick and abusive and they’re being allowed to do it.

  42. Airline policies may say you cannot videotape. They may also say you cannot wear underwear. For all the law cares both are pieces of unenforceable crap. State law applies on recording and most states allow one party recording – so if you are interacting with someone it is perfectly within your right to record them as an aid to memory. All the other person can do is refuse to interact. Check In agent would be within her right to refuse to check him in and move on to the next customer. If he did not move out of the way then police can be called.

  43. The agent should say I know you ate frustrated but your bag is ovrrsuze and overweight. It does say this in the contract of carriage. It is a FAA law. This is sometimes due to why flights are delayed when loading bags on the plane. The plane can not take off or land if their is too much weight on board. He paid 225 bucks on the way out because je had touch stuff in his bag so ot was overweight then on his return it was the same thing. Either he went shopping and bought more stuff so it made it double or he was suppose to be charge when he left and they did not charge and now on his return he owes that it is still overweight plus from his first flight when he left. She did not ask him permission to record. While recording her he now changes hisind and will pay the fees owed so as to make him look good. I would have sat there said nothing til he paid. I would say he could board but his bag would have to stay or he could take out some of his stuff and fex it at the airport. The other agents there could check in the other travelors. The agent could say if you don’t pay fee you can leave your bag at the bag claim. And if the next flight has less weight your bag will be forwarded on the next available flight as long as it has less weight on the plane. Maybe charging 3/4 or 1/2 of the fee. Sometimes negotiating is okay to do.

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