It is not a surprise that an airline CEO like Scott Kirby of United Airlines is not in favor of a cash-based European-style compensation system for flight delays and cancellations. I was a bit surprised, however, at his use of a false dichotomy of safety versus cost to make his point.
Why United Airlines CEO Is Against European-Style Compensation For Flight Delays + Cancellations
Touting United’s expansion in Denver, Kirby made his media rounds on Tuesday, appearing on several TV and radio programs. Kirby was asked repeatedly about the Biden Administration plan to introduce consumer protections for delays and cancellations similar to EU261/2004, which protects consumers traveling to/from the European Union or on a European carrier.
In short, such protections obligate carries to provide cash compensation for delays within their control, including crew scheduling and mechanical delays. The compensation amount is based upon the length of they delay in reaching a passenger’s final destination.
Speaking to NPR’s Morning Edition, Kirby attempted to pin the blame for most operational mishaps on air traffic control or weather:
I saw the secretary of transportation two weeks ago, and I’ll tell you exactly what I said to him, which is we have every motivation to run a reliable operation because that’s what’s best for our customers, which means that’s what’s best for our business. And we are doing that. By far the biggest issue that we have is the weather and air traffic control delays. I mean, every day it’s chronic. Every day we wake up to restrictions in the amount of capacity that we can have, and that bleeds through the rest of the system.
I think we can stipulate that is the case. Indeed, the weather causes far more problems than does mechanical issues. The stressed air traffic control system and shortage of air traffic controllers also exacerbates matters.
But that’s not what this delay compensation is about. In those sorts of situations, the obligatory cash compensation would not apply. Where it would apply is in the case of the mechanical delays Kirby suggests are so rare.
Then Kirby takes an odd turn.
But I think the most important point is safety. We start from Day One with every employee — we drill it into them that safety is No. 1. You don’t think about costs. And if you all of a sudden start saying, well, there’s a big expense associated with delaying or canceling this flight – I don’t want to chip away at that safety foundation with the pilot or mechanic in the back of their minds saying, “Well, this is a close call and it’s going to cost a lot of money” – we shouldn’t do that.
I find that to be a rather startling admission.
Sure, most things in life, including mechanical delays, may be a cost-benefit analysis. A flight may take a delay if the engine won’t start, but may not if two of the onboard lavatories are out of commission provided two others are functioning.
But I’d like to think that whether there would be cash compensation due or not, safety would never be comprised. In other words, whether a plane is safe or not to fly is a unique and different calculus from the financial impact of a delayed flight.
Perhaps that’s naïve. Perhaps whether delays occurs always involves some sort of balancing test, even for more serious matters.
On CNBC, Kirby was also asked about the potential new consumer protections and said:
We already take care of our passengers for things within our control and United is at least running the best operation we’ve ever run in our history. We’ve got 10% more pilots per block hour, double the amount of spare investment this year, 25% more spare aircraft, the biggest issue with us is air traffic control. Every day we wake up to air traffic control delays.
The more important issue on this is safety. We’ve built the safest system in the world. We shouldn’t chip away at that foundation by asking our employees to balance safety with cost. We have a culture where we just don’t do that.
Yes, I think that last sentence is true and I think I speak for all of us in hoping that the introduction of an EU261-style compensation system in the USA would not change that at all. The only right answer is that any malignant safety issue is addressed before the aircraft takes off.
And no, United does not always “take care” of passengers for delays within its control. A recent flight was delayed nearly three hours due to a crew scheduling issue and there was no compensation offered. Certainly, when there is compensation offered it is in the form of miles or future flight credit, not USD.
It is of course not surprising that Kirby is averse to obligatory cash compensation for delays and cancellations in the USA. But am I the only one who is troubled by his hint…some might even call threat…that such a system would actually jeopardize the safety of flights?
I’d say Kirby’s messaging is off here and he would be better served implementing protocols to protect passengers in case of these delays and cancellations that make any sort of government-backed mandate superfluous.