We’ve all seen the videos of airport police manhandling a guy out of his ticketed seat and dragging him down the aisle on a United Airlines jet. We all know that he was angry because the airline chose his seat at random and wanted him out to make room for a non-paying flight attendant who was urgently needed in Louisville.
A company spokesman called the event an “involuntary de-boarding situation,” apparently with a straight face. Happens all the time, right?
Many people found this story shocking. Not me. I posted three years ago about two annoying back-to-back experiences with United. These were only the most recent stories in a much longer litany that goes back many years and continues to this day.
There are some airlines whose employees treat customers pretty nicely — Southwest, Alaska and Delta come to mind. American Airlines is pretty much by the book. But United, well, United is in a class by itself.
No Style Points
United screwed this situation up in several ways.
1) After offering first $400 and then $800 (plus a hotel room) to passengers willing to stay over in Chicago, United still needed two empty seats. The obvious solution would have been to offer more money. Economists say that there is a certain price at which any market will clear; this is true. If the company had been willing to come out of pocket for another $1,000, it might have avoided this whole mess.
2) United gate agents let passengers board the jet before enough empty seats had been secured for United’s precious employees. It’s easier to keep people off a plane than to drag them out bodily, especially in an age when everyone has a cell phone that can shoot little movies.
3) United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz immediately blamed the passenger, a Chinese doctor, who, Munoz said, “raised his voice and refused to comply with crew instructions.” (Obedience is very important if you’re a United passenger.)
Then, said Munoz, the passenger grew “more disruptive and belligerent,” and added that “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”
Apparently “established procedures” allow for roughing up passengers and knocking them unconscious — who knew?
This calls to mind the time I heard a United flight attendant say over the intercom that her job was really passenger safety but that she would try to help passengers in her spare moments. (I am not making this up.)
4) Then Munoz doubled down and sent a cheer-up message to employees; it was picked up moments later by news organizations.
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.
“While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
In other words: You employees are great; never change.
It seems entirely possible that the United attitude — employees good, customers bad — trickles down from company’s C-suite to every single airline employee. This is why more than a few people are not big United Airlines fans.
I am flying cross-country tomorrow, and unfortunately my flight is on United. If I don’t make it to my destination, please tell my relatives and friends that I put up a good fight.