Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The not-so-friendly skies

I'm just as disgusted as everyone else about the story of the passenger who was bloodied and dragged off an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville because he refused to give up his seat to make room for crewmembers that needed to be ferried to Louisville.

I understand the concept behind overbooking. And I understand that, legally, United Airlines (or in this case, their subsidiary, Republic Airlines) had every right to force the guy off their plane.

But there's the legal world, and then there's the world of common human decency. What kind of world do we live in when something this grotesque is allowed to happen?
“Once you’re offloading passengers who’ve already boarded so that you can get employees on the flight, you’d think they’d do just about anything to avoid that,” said Seth Kaplan, editor of the Airline Weekly trade publication. 
Others echoed the sentiment that United probably could’ve handled the situation better. 
“I’ve seen a lot in my 40 years covering and working for the airline industry, but this is historically bad public relations,” says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. “The burning question is why did they wait until everyone was seated before realizing they needed to move employees?”
Yep. This should have been handled before the guy was allowed to board the plane. The euphemism the airline industry uses for cases like these, when overbooking requires a passenger to be bumped off a flight, is "involuntarily denied boarding." But the passenger wasn't denied boarding. He was allowed on the plane, presumably because he had a boarding pass with a seat number on it, and he was sitting in his seat when the flight attendants and gate agents selected him for removal.

The passenger, a doctor (whose background is utterly irrelevant to the incident at hand) who claimed he had patients to see in Louisville the following day, refused to get off the plane after he was (apparently randomly) selected for removal, which is when things escalated. Vox's Alex Abad-Santos wonders about the thought process behind the brutal forced removal: what United staff member(s) actually thought this was a good idea?
But the complaint here is that it seems like there are missing steps between asking a man to leave an overbooked flight because he’s been bumped and, if he refuses, knocking that man to the ground and dragging him off the plane, busting his lip in the process.

If every airline deals with denied involuntary boardings — some 8,955 occurred between October and December 2016, according to the DOT report — why did this one result in someone literally being dragged into the aisle? Is that a reflection of United’s policy? And is United’s valuing its policy over its customers indicative of a bigger problem in the industry?

It’s hard to imagine another industry getting away with rescinding services that have already been paid for.

“How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?” Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.
Put another way, people are outraged at the way United treated this person, because they are frustrated by the way the domestic airline industry treats their customers as a whole. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson notes, this is a symptom of a larger problem in the airline industry:
But although this incident was unusual in many respects, it was also representative of an airline industry that has considerable power over consumers—even if the use of force is more subtle than a group of security professionals wrestling a passenger to the floor. 
For example, many people have pointed out that United might have avoided the entire fiasco by simply offering the passengers more money to leave the plane. By law, compensation for passengers is capped at $1,350, which means that United technically could have raised its offer by more than 50 percent before removing people against their will. But it’s absurd that airlines’ capacity to compensate passengers is bounded by the law in the first place. Indeed, there’s a good case to remove the cap entirely. If airlines are legally permitted to overbook—that is, to sell consumers a service that they will not fulfill—they ought to pay market price to compensate people for the unfulfilled promise. 
Domestic airlines are now enjoying record profits, having flown more passengers each year since 2010. This is in part because the airline industry is sheltered from both antitrust regulation and litigation. Four carriers—United, Delta, American, and Southwest—earn more than $20 billion in profits annually and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights. Along with cable companies, airlines are the top-of-mind paragon for industries that seem to get worse for consumers as they become more heavily concentrated. Indeed, when fuel prices fell last year, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker (who edited this story and who has a relative who works at United) has written, airlines spent the savings on stock buybacks rather than pass them to consumers.

Meanwhile, if customers are shocked by the fine print of United’s contract of carriage, what recourse do they have against the company? Very little. In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal. 
In this way, the United video serves as a stark metaphor, one where the quiet brutalization of consumers is rendered in shocking, literal form. The first thought that I had watching the outrageous footage of a passenger being dragged through an aisle like a bag of trash was that this should never happen. But fundamentally, this is an old story: Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts. The video is a scandal. But so is the law.
A depressing situation, indeed, and one that makes me never want to fly United again (even though I probably will, by virtue of the fact that Houston is one of their fortress hubs and I also still have a significant amount of frequent flyer miles with them that I need to use). But there are some silver linings to this otherwise gruesome incident:

United's stock is taking a beating. The company's tone-deaf CEO was forced to issue a second, more contrite apology today because the statement he issued about the incident yesterday went over like a lead balloon. The Chicago police officer involved in the brutal removal has reportedly been suspended. Late night hosts and other airlines are taking their shots at United. Today the internet was flooded with hilarious and savage memes at the airline's expense. And, most importantly, the outrage being generated by this incident indicates that, even in our hyper-corpratized world, there are still things that companies cannot do to their customers without sparking furious outrage and backlash.

No comments: