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A United Airlines passenger plane
I cannot remember my first time flying in an airplane, but many of my early memories of travelling to see family are infused with delight.
I am pretty clear, though, when I knew flying was no longer fun. I was stranded in Halifax. After hundreds of passengers formed several lines to get information, the airline shut down its counter and made its staff disappear.
I expect airlines will realize devaluing passengers will do more harm to their bottom line.
Frustrated, I found a corner and called the help line, which was marginally better, but no less clear about the options. One day later, I was home.
You can imagine my anger when a coworker, also delayed in the same airport, albeit for a later flight, told me we had been paged repeatedly for the evening flight, one the airline had said in no uncertain terms was full to capacity.
So trust me when I say as a frequent flier that I have seen and heard it all. Travelling is not so much an adventure as it is an extreme form of competitive obstacle racing. Why bother with Tough Mudder races when you can suffer through self-check-in, baggage drop-off, security, gate checks, actual flying, disembarking and luggage retrieval?
I was both horrified and unsurprised when United Airlines and its violent eviction of a passenger made the news. I was horrified because the passenger received multiple injuries as a result of his eviction: a concussion, a broken nose, a split lip and the loss of two teeth. I was not surprised it made the news because multiple videos taken by other passengers surfaced.
United’s first response to the social media firestorm was to apologize for overbooking. The second response was to offer assurances that the CEO stood by staff who had had to deal with a belligerent passenger.
After more evidence showing the passenger being calm in his refusal before security forcibly removed him from his seat, CEO Oscar Munoz, who just one month before had been given a public relations award for his work, gave a third apology that addressed the key issues of violence and poor decision-making by staff.
At first, much of the coverage focused on overbooking, where airlines sell more seats than they actually have. This deserves attention because when we purchase our seats, this practice means we aren’t actually guaranteed one.
There is nothing else we can buy where such variability exists. If I go to the store and buy a dress, I get to take it home. If I buy a dress online, and between my order being placed and the order being filled they sell out, I may not have a dress, but I still have my money.
The second issue is deadheading, where airlines use empty seats to transport their staff. Again, as I am often fond of saying to my child, lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine. United had more choices for its staff than it did, or wanted to make, for its passengers.
Instead of finding alternatives for its crew, it decided that paying passengers were the ones who needed re-accommodation (yes, that is how the CEO described the removal of paid, seated, passengers.) It speaks volumes that staff set the value of passenger rights so low.
But here is something else to think about. As passengers, we have to put up with a lot. We pay for everything, and not just with cash. Travel causes significant mental stress, and much of it unnecessary due to poorly trained staff, ill-thought policies, and inconsistent practices. Many people noted that Dr. David Dao should have just packed his gear and left, especially when security showed up.
And yet, perhaps like many of us, he finally had enough and said no. What happened to Dao was horrible. I expect airlines will realize devaluing passengers will do more harm to their bottom line. In just three days, United lost millions in its share value, lost thousands of customers (there’s now an app that will exclude United from fare searchers), and faces a lawsuit with far-reaching consequences.