JAL and ANA say overbooking violence would never happen in Japan

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Staff Writers

The violent video of a passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight on Sunday has gone viral around the world, including in Japan, sparking outcry and concern that a similar incident could happen here.

But Japanese airline officials on Wednesday dismissed suggestions that such a scenario would play out on one of their flights, saying they would never resort to violence or turn away passengers without their consent.

In the incident on the Chicago to Kentucky flight, Kentucky physician David Dao was bloodied as he was forcibly removed from the plane, with the entire scene captured on video by passengers and posted on social media.

Major carriers All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines Co. said that in the case of an overbooking, they would continue asking passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for some form of compensation.

“We would never drag our customers out of our planes … that’s unimaginable,” a JAL spokesman told The Japan Times. “We ask passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. If nobody does, then we just keep asking until we find one. It’s not that difficult to find such volunteers in Japan.”

ANA spokesman Tetsuya Yokoi agreed, saying the carrier asks passengers for cooperation in exchange for a payment. He said ANA has never had trouble finding volunteers.

Yokoi said ANA has code-sharing flights with United Airlines. However, if trouble occurred on a flight operated by United and code-shared by ANA, it would be the responsibility of the operating carrier, not ANA, to solve it.

Both carriers said they ask for cooperation at check-in counters or boarding gates in exchange for a seat on the next available flight. Cash payments or flight miles are offered to volunteers under the so-called Flex Traveler System used by both airlines.

JAL and ANA both pay ¥10,000 to passengers who change to a flight departing the same day and ¥20,000 to those who agree to depart the following day or later.

Like in the U.S., overbooking itself is legal for Japanese airlines and is relatively common. Airlines routinely sell more tickets than available seats, counting on the likelihood that a certain number of passengers won’t show up. It’s up to airlines to decide how to get passengers to give up seats, a transport ministry official said.

Japan’s nine airlines, including regional carriers, overbooked a total of 11,550 passengers in the fiscal year through March 2016, according to ministry statistics. That’s down from 14,460 overbookings in fiscal 2014. In fiscal 2015, most passengers gave up their seats voluntarily, but a total of 1,858 passengers were denied check-ins, compared with 2,176 the year before.

“Our policy is that we check the number of overbookings every three months, and instruct airlines to take proper measures if the overbooking is considered excessive,” ministry official Yusuke Kondo said, noting that the ministry has never issued such a warning.

About 2 out of every 10,000 passengers are overbooked by Japanese airlines, with 1-to-4 out of every 100,000 passengers denied boarding, according to the ministry.

The share of passengers denied boarding in the U.S. rose to as high as 1 in 500 in the late 1990s, but has now fallen to about 1 in 1,000, The Atlantic magazine reported, citing figures from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Last month, JAL announced that it mistakenly boarded more passengers than the number of available seats on a flight from Paris to Tokyo. The crew noticed just before take-off that a passenger was standing after using a restroom and finding that all seats were filled. A similar mishap took place on an ANA flight in September, prompting the transport ministry to instruct all airlines to make sure every passenger is seated before take-off.

Sunday’s incident, meanwhile, evoked fears of racism among some Japanese Twitter users after word spread that the affected passenger was Asian-American.

According to records from the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, Dao, a 69-year-old physician from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, went to medical school at the University of Medicine in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, graduating in 1974. He was licensed in Kentucky with a specialty in pulmonary disease.

One Japanese Twitter user recalled her experience flying with United Airlines and becoming frightened after seeing the cabin crew’s “horrible attitude” toward Asian passengers.

“I have not flown with United since then,” she tweeted. “I don’t think this is an isolated incident.”

Shares of United Continental closed down 1.1 percent at $70.71 Tuesday, after falling as much as 4.4 percent earlier, Reuters reported. The company shed as much as about $1 billion in market value before ending the day with a loss of about $250 million.

Social media outrage also continued in the U.S., with the incident trending on Twitter for the second consecutive day. Many users promoted hashtags #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto and #BoycottUnitedAirlines.

In response to the torrent of criticism, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz unequivocally apologized on Tuesday.

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz said. “We take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

The comments were in stark contrast to the company’s initial response, which seemed to at least partially blame the passenger.

U.S. media organizations published an email Munoz sent to employees just after the incident in which he said the passenger “defied” authorities and “compounded” the situation.

“Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this,” he wrote.

Information from AP, AFP-JIJI added