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Many people have expressed their views on the United Airlines story about Dr. Dao being pulled off his flight. Quickly forgotten that day was the fact that a week earlier, United had made headlines by not allowing some young women on their plane because they were wearing leggings. While these stories are largely unrelated, different behavior by airline employees or their friends could have made a big difference.

“Marry me and fly for free” is a phrase heard for decades, referring to the fact that airline employees typically don’t pay for personal travel with their company, nor do their spouses or dependents. Pass travel, employee travel, non-rev travel, or by any other name this is a benefit that ubiquitous in the airline industry and is often extended further with the idea of “buddy passes.” Buddy passes give an airline employee the right to offer free or greatly reduced price travel to friends.

Crew travel for work is not the same as employee pass travel, but crew members flying to get their next assignment is a cost of business that airlines tend to absorb by taking seats from their for-sale seat inventory.

The “leggings” issues at United was related to buddy pass travelers who either hadn’t been told the rules for using the buddy passes or just ignored them. The issue that resulted in aviation security being called in to remove Dr. Dao was the fact that a crewmember needed his seat, and that person took priority over paying customers at that time per United’s rules. It is interesting to discuss the responsibilities of employees traveling on a pass or whether crews who need to fly should be able to bump off paying passengers. But the real issue at hand here is that employees traveling for work or pleasure are representatives of their company and should not let a situation escalate into a PR problem.

One of the unwritten rules of pass travel is to not be noticed and not to make waves. If a revenue-paying passenger needs your seat, you offer yours up. Your role, in exchange for the wonderful privilege that pass travel is, is to help things go smoother, help out when needed, help the flight attendants with a customer’s bag if needed, hang around after arrival and help pick up the plane, etc. Somehow this idea now seems trite and maybe too “old school”. But if the buddy- pass riding leggings-wearers and the Republic Airlines crew that felt their needs overtook those of the passengers already boarded on the flight had thought this way, United Airlines would not have had either PR issue to deal with.

In neither case was the issue caused by a paying passenger acting badly – both cases were caused by employees or “buddies”, who each chose to put their issues ahead of the company that employs them or their friends. So much for not biting the hand that feeds you. “I’m sorry, I can change quickly” or “Looks like the flight is already boarded, how else can we get to Louisville or close tonight” are the responses that should have been offered by the employees. It is unfortunate if this is considered an unrealistic scenario.

United has reacted quickly and decisively once they recognized the severity of their situation. They have announced a 10-point plan of largely common-sense items to regain customer confidence. I expect that they will also internally review their employee travel polices, and decide what the right priorities are for those traveling for fun and those traveling for work. When your own employees traveling cause issues that put your company on the front page for days, this is a signal to review priorities.