A married couple, Jessie Au, 68, and her husband M.G. (“Guill”) Wientjes, 66, both PhDs, were kicked off a late-night United flight from Washington, DC to Los Angeles earlier this summer.
To add insult to injury, Au, a 5’3” grandmother, says an internal United committee called her “belligerent” and “threatening” after she stood up for her rights as a passenger. Although not physically beaten or dragged, Dr. Au says the intimidating experience reminded her of the treatment Dr. David Dao received in a notorious United incident in 2017.
(Full disclosure: I own stock in American, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.)
The incident apparently began when Dr. M. G. Wientjes and another passenger were issued boarding passes with duplicate seat assignments. While trying to sort out the mess, the couple says a flight attendant dropped Wientjes’ boarding pass several rows back, then denied they had ever given it to her. Although the pass was ultimately returned to the Wientjes, they say by that time the situation had become confrontational, with the flight attendant screaming “You’re coming out.”
I contacted United Airlines multiple times to hear their side of the story, but did not receive an on-the-record response before publication. On September 13, we received the following statement from a United spokesperson. “At United, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of professionalism. Following this issue, we reached out to our customers and our team to find out what happened.” Sources within the airline also note that they spoke to the Wientjes in July to talk through the incident.
Jessie Au and Guil Wientjes retired as professors of pharmaceutics from The Ohio State University. The couple met in San Francisco as young researchers and have been married nearly forty years. But rather than stay home and dote on their three grandchildren, the pair remain active in scientific research with their Carlsbad-based company Optimum Therapeutics, currently working on a time-release medication that attaches itself to tumors.
On June 24, they were at Washington Dulles (IAD), having completed visits to the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration in search of a research grant. They checked in on UA1448 at 7PM, three hours ahead of their scheduled 10:15PM departure to LAX. The couple planned to drive to San Diego after their early-morning arrival the next day.
They got boarding passes with assigned seats 21A (Wientjes) and 21C (Au) in the exit row. The couple boarded in the first two boarding groups, stowed carry-ons and relaxed in their seats. About 20 minutes later, another passenger in the 5th boarding group appeared with a boarding pass for 21A. A flight attendant took both boarding passes and headed to the back of the plane, apparently to try to resolve the situation. But then, according to Au, she dropped the pass and denied that Au and Wientjes had given it to her.
By this time a gate agent had arrived to assist the flight attendant, and the other person assigned the same seat had been seated elsewhere. When another passenger handed them the dropped boarding pass, the Wientjes say, they tried to get the attention of the flight attendant. They were ignored.
“They had their back to me. I said,“We have the pass here it is,” says Dr. Au. They ignored her “until I tapped her elbow from her seat. “’I just want to show you.’”
Au says, “The flight attendant and gate agent both yelled at us. We were traumatized. You could hear them screaming throughout the plane. “Don’t touch me! You are coming out! I’m going to kick you off the plane.”
The elbow tap may be what led a United internal review committee to call Au “physically threatening.” Ultimately United sent another flight attendant and three ground personnel to deal with the Wientjes. “They didn’t resolve the issue,” said Dr. Au. “They abuse us for no good reason.” What is unclear is if the elderly couple were considered a threat, why air marshals, TSA, local police or other security personnel were not contacted.
“Jessie didn’t curse or yell. We think the flight attendant overreacted,” says Dr. M.G. Wientjes. He says “United made all these promises” about how passengers would be treated after the Dr. Dao beating. Yet Wientjes says the flight attendant, the ground personnel and even the pilot were “menacing and unpleasant.”
The Wientjes, who say they were sitting in their assigned seats and felt “abused” by United, refused to leave. A 40-minute impasse resulted, in which three ground personnel boarded the plane to “discuss” the situation with the Wientjes, which they found intimidating. Ultimately, the pilot went on the intercom. He said there was a “situation” on the aircraft and all the passengers would have to deplane.
At this point, the Wientjes reluctantly left the plane so the other passengers could fly. Although United put them up for the night and put them on a plane the following day, the United Mileage Plus members were warned that they were on an internal watch list. Au says she has been repeatedly questioned on subsequent flights.
Hong Kong-born Au, who is 5’ 3 and a non-drinker, was subsequently accused of being “belligerent” and “physically threatening” by an internal United panel. The United Airlines Passenger Incident Review Committee, (PIRC) had previously demanded she produce a substantial written response within 96 hours or face a lifetime ban from United.
“This event was caused by mistakes of two UA employees, the gate agent who double-assigned the same seat to two passengers and the flight attendant who misplaced our boarding pass,” claims Dr. Au. “But no one apologized for the UA mistakes nor acknowledged that UA violated their Contract of Carriage that a seated passenger cannot be removed unless the passenger presents a security or safety risk.”
The former professor believes that United employees and the PIRC “greatly exaggerated a light tap on their employee’s elbow as being physically threatening.” To the Wientjes, the internal review “was nothing more than an exercise in putting more blame on the passengers.”
“Being removed from our flight, in addition to being delayed, was humiliating and hurtful,” say the Wientjes. They feel that since the “infamous incident of Dr. Dao” being forcefully dragged off a United Airlines flight two years ago, “the CEO and President of UA have repeatedly vowed to improve their service and make passengers feel good. We would like them to live up to their words and revise their policy and procedures so that what happened to us cannot happen to other passengers.”
A passenger was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight by law enforcement on Sunday after refusing to give up his seat. According to a person who says they were on the flight, the airline needed room on the overbooked aircraft to reposition crew for another flight. But when it couldn’t find enough volunteers, even after offering $800, the airline selected the man, who is a doctor, and several other passengers to deplane. The video quickly made its way around the internet and social media. In a statement to Business Insider, United Airlines said: “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.” ————————————————– Follow BI Video on Twitter: http://bit.ly/1oS68Zs Follow BI on Facebook: http://bit.ly/1W9Lk0n Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/ ————————————————– Business Insider is the fastest growing business news site in the US. Our mission: to tell you all you need to know about the big world around you. The BI Video team focuses on technology, strategy and science with an emphasis on unique storytelling and data that appeals to the next generation of leaders – the digital generation.