A Hawaii woman travelling to Boston is the latest passenger to be caught up in an airline mishap—and again United Airlines was the center of the controversy.
The airlines had to issue yet another apology to an angered passenger, this time to Shirley Yamauchi, a middle school teacher who said she was forced to hold her 2-year-old son Taizo on her lap for a three-hour-plus flight last month after United assigned the child’s seat to a passenger flying standby.
A representative for the National Education Association, Yamauchi said she bought two round-trip tickets for $969 each for the June 29 journey to a union gathering in Boston, and that she and her son each sat in their assigned seats during the first portion of the trip, to Houston. But Yamauchi said her seats were changed for the connecting flight to Boston and that once on board, her son’s seat was given to another passenger who told her he paid $75 for the standby ticket.
After a flight attendant asked if her son was with her, the attendant walked away “and this man comes, and he says, ‘you’re sitting in my seat,’” Yamauchi said.
“There was no time to video record,” she said. “There was no time to even react.”
United said it has apologized to Yamauchi, the second time in four months it had to backtrack in the face of criticism it mistreated paying customers. The carrier triggered a public relations nightmare when it had a passenger forcibly removed from a flight in Chicago in April, and then initially blamed the customer for not being cooperative.
Analysts said the episode with Yamauchi is yet another example of airlines being more focused on their bottom line than on customers.
“You need to empower your employees to do the right thing,” said Peter Goelz, who works in the Washington D.C. offices of O’Neill and Associates and specializes in crisis communications and aviation issues. “You need to let them know if you make a decision that’s the right thing that may not be maximizing profits, that they’re going to be rewarded.”
Yamauchi said she was reluctant to complain because her son had fallen asleep on her lap, and because she was intimidated by stories of other passengers who had been forced to surrender a seat. In the April incident, United passenger Dr. David Dao suffered a concussion and broken nose, according to his lawyers, when he was dragged off the plane after refusing to give up his seat.
“I’m in pain, I’m exhausted. What can I do?” Yamauchi said.
Yamauchi said the trip to Boston was uncomfortable as she and her son were belted into one seat, and she was concerned for his safety. The Federal Aviation Administration recommends parents flying with young children secure them in a car seat-like device, and United’s own website states children over age 2 should have their own tickets and seats. Yamauchi’s son Taizo is 27-months-old.
“If you were not strapped in, particularly if you’re a young child, if you hit any kind of turbulence, that young child could be bouncing off the roof, off the overhead luggage racks,” Goelz said. “It could be a very dangerous situation and United shouldn’t have allowed it to happen.”
In a statement, United said it would instruct its employees not to let the situation with Yamauchi happen again.
“This should not have happened. We sincerely apologize to Ms. Yamauchi and her son and we are refunding their tickets and providing additional compensation. We take our commitment to customer safety very seriously, and are currently reviewing the details of the incident.”
A United spokesman separately told The Washington Post that Taizo’s boarding pass had been scanned inaccurately, making it appear that he had not checked in and the seat was available.
Yamauchi disputed United’s offer of compensation, saying the airline had only offered a partial refundand two flight vouchers with expiration dates.
“I’m not demanding an apology, I just want them to stop this, this craziness,” she said.
The incident comes weeks after United chief executive Oscar Munoz said the episode in Chicago with Dao was “a turning point for all of us at United.” Video of Dao’s removal, which show security officers dragging him on his back down the aisle, went viral and helped amplify the criticism the airline received.
Dao and United subsequently reached a settlement, and the airline promised changes to its procedures.
Yamauchi’s experience echoes that of a California couple who said they were kicked off a flight by Delta Air Lines personnel and threatened with arrest time for refusing to put their toddler on their laps instead of in a seat they had purchased.
News accounts of other airline incidents include a rant by a United pilot over the intercom of a plane in February before takeoff that prompted passengers to flee, a disabled rights activist in a wheelchair who was forced to crawl up a staircase to board Japanese carrier Vanilla Air in June, and the death of a giant rabbit on a United flight from London to Chicago.
Yamauchi’s husband, Brad Cailing, struck out sharply against United in a posting on his Facebook page that included images of his son and wife squeezed into the one seat during the flight.
“Hi everyone. PLEASE SHARE!” Cailing wrote. “My son flew to Boston with his mom on United Airlines yesterday, stop over in Houston, upon boarding for 2nd wing of flight, they sold his seat to a standby person.”
Yamauchi flew back home Thursday morning from Boston, and in a telephone interview during a stopover in San Francisco said that first flight was much better: she and her son were upgraded to first class — with their own seats — and the flight personnel told her it was necessary because of the high volume of passengers.
“I don’t know if that’s United’s subtle way of reaching out or if this is all a coincidence,” Yamauchi said. She said other colleagues from the teachers conference were similarly upgraded on their flights.
Asked if she would fly United again, Yamauchi said, “because of teachers’ salaries, I probably would.”Material from Globe wire services was used in this story. Lauren Feiner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @lauren_feiner.