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United passenger threatened with handcuffs to make room for 'higher-priority' traveler

It’s hard to find examples of worse decision-making and customer treatment than United Airlines having a passenger dragged from an overbooked plane. But United’s shabby treatment of Geoff Fearns, including a threat to place him in handcuffs, comes close.

Fearns, 59, is president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, an Irvine investment firm that handles more than half a billion dollars in real estate holdings on behalf of public pension funds. He had to fly to Hawaii last week for a business conference.

Fearns needed to return early so he paid about $1,000 for a full-fare, first-class ticket to Los Angeles. He boarded the aircraft at Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai, took his seat and enjoyed a complimentary glass of orange juice while awaiting takeoff.

Then, as Fearns tells it, a United employee rushed onto the aircraft and informed him that he had to get off the plane.

“I asked why,” he told me. “They said the flight was overfull.”

Fearns, like the doctor at the center of that viral video from Sunday night, held his ground. He was already on the plane, already seated. He shouldn’t have to disembark.

“That’s when they told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute,” Fearns said. “They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me.”

Apparently United had some mechanical troubles with the aircraft scheduled to make the flight. So the carrier swapped out that plane with a slightly smaller one with fewer first-class seats.

Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flier program, gets the boot.

“I understand you might bump people because a flight is full,” Fearns said. “But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.”

You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

It shouldn’t make any difference where a passenger is seated or how much he or she paid for their ticket. But you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of United putting the arm on a full-fare, first-class traveler. If there’s anybody whose business you want to safeguard and cultivate, it’s that person.

So how could United possibly make things worse? Not to worry. This is the airline that knows how to add insult to injury.

A United employee, responding to Fearns’ complaint that he shouldn’t have to miss the flight, compromised by downgrading him to economy class and placing him in the middle seat between a married couple who were in the midst of a nasty fight and refused to be seated next to each other.

“They argued the whole way back,” Fearns recalled. “Nearly six hours. It was a lot of fun.”

Back in Southern California, he consulted his lawyer and then wrote to United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, who commended airline workers after the passenger-dragging incident “for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

Fearns requested a full refund for his flight from Kauai and asked for United to make a $25,000 donation to the charity of his choice. This is how rich guys do it.

He received an email back from a United “corporate customer care specialist” apologizing that Fearns apparently had an unpleasant experience. But, no, forget about a refund.

As for that charitable donation, what are you kidding? A hard no on that.

Instead, the service rep offered to refund Fearns the difference between his first-class ticket and an economy ticket — about a week later, as if that wasn’t the first thing they should do in a situation like this — and to give him a $500 credit for a future trip on the airline.

“Despite the negative experience, we hope to have your continued support,” the rep concluded. “Your business is especially important to us and we'll do our utmost to make your future contacts with United satisfactory in every respect.”

I reached out to United and asked if anyone cared to comment on Fearns’ adventure in corporate catastrophe. No one got back to me.

Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University, said United’s actions in both the dragged-off-the-plane episode and with Fearns reflect a coldhearted mindset utterly devoid of compassion for customers.

“They’re so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy,” she said.

As a result, Underwood said, situations that should be manageable spiral out of control and result in unnecessarily messy PR disasters.

“What United and all companies need to do is to train and empower workers to deal with specific issues as they arise,” she said. “Don’t just follow whatever is written in your policies.”

I couldn’t agree more. United is neck-deep in trouble this week because its workers are clearly out of their depth in handling out-of-the-ordinary events. You have to think someone on the flight crew would have been able to step up, if given the trust and authority to do so by the carrier.

Fearns said three different members of the crew on his middle-seat, economy-class return to L.A. apologized for how he was treated in Hawaii. But they said they were unable to do anything.

He’s now considering a lawsuit against United — and he certainly has the resources to press his case.

I asked if he’ll ever fly United again.

Fearns could only laugh. “Are you kidding?”

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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