A Small Word for United Airlines (Note That ‘Small’)

The company's treatment of a customer who didn't want to lose his seat united the world in a way few other things have done.

By David Mills Published on April 12, 2017

I want to say a small word for United Airlines. Not many people will. But only a small word.

The company’s treatment of a customer who didn’t want to lose his seat united (haha) left and right in a huge internet mob. The left said, See, that’s what big corporations do. The right said, Sometimes they act that way but the market punishes such nitwittery. Both were deeply ticked off.

To be fair to the airline, few organizations could have so efficiently united the world in outrage. If you’re old enough, you remember all the radio stations playing “We are the World” at the same time. Everyone felt chummy for three minutes. With United, everyone will be sharing their righteous wrath for days. Someone should nominate the company for a Nobel Peace Prize.

United Unites the World in Outrage

Before I get to my small word, let’s look at the story. As an outrage-producer, it’s perfect. Big company against the little guy. (Who, even better for the visuals, seems to actually be a little guy. And — this is icing on the cake — an old little guy.) Even better, the big company has a reputation for not caring about the little guy.

So we’ve got: The little guy suffers apparent injustice from an apparently incompetent and heartless big company. Incompetent injustice seems worse than competent injustice. They let him on the plane, settle in, and then they took his seat.

Let’s look at the story. As an outrage-producer, it’s perfect.The little guy suffers apparent injustice from an apparently incompetent and heartless big company. Incompetent injustice seems worse than competent injustice. They let him on the plane, settle in, and then they took his seat.

That produced: Video of the screaming man being dragged out of his seat and down the aisle. By three big security guys. Pictures of the poor man with his face bloody.

Then came the company’s p.r. trainwreck. The president of the heartless and incompetent big company begins with two strikes against him. So what does he do? He digs in his heels with obnoxious tweet. Then he digs them in deeper, not even offering a fake apology. He excuses the actions as “established procedures.” (He finally apologized this afternoon, but you’re judged by your first reaction. Not what you say after the poor panicked boys in the p.r. department get to you.)

And the lying! First United claims the plane was overbooked, which happens. People get bumped. Then they admitted that, no, it wasn’t overbooked, they had to make room for a crew who were in the wrong place. They needed this crew to get to Louisville for another flight. Why they hadn’t planned ahead they didn’t say. The world sneered.

And the Orwellian language! They didn’t bump anyone. No. They “re-accommodated” them. The world laughed.

And then the company’s stock tanked. The market has a good eye for sinking ships. The president realized he better be nice.

An Airline. Just Perfect.

And the big company’s an airline. Just perfect. Everyone who flies has horror stories to tell about airlines. Except Southwest and a few others. But the big ones. Yeah, they’ve annoyed millions of people.

The airline could have avoided the whole thing if it wasn’t so greedy. Judging from its customer’s complaints, it’s a big one for nickel and diming. The most ardent free-marketers among my friends all complained that United doesn’t understand how prices work.

Many of United’s customers had horror stories to share. People who’d had bad experiences with other airlines quickly jumped in. If you’re angry at Delta or American, unload on United. People telling their horror stories quickly started playing “Can you top this?” Most people could.

The best part? The airline could have avoided the whole thing if it wasn’t so greedy. Judging from its customer’s complaints, it’s a big one for nickel and diming. The most ardent free-marketers among my friends all complained that United doesn’t understand how prices work. They could simply have offered more money until four people agreed to get off.

But the law lets the airline throw people off, so throw people off they did. Offering more money wouldn’t have cost them much, their customers would have been happy, AND NO ONE WOULD HAVE SENT VIRAL VIDEOS OF A LITTLE OLD MAN GETTING BEATEN UP ON THE AIRLINE’S ORDERS.

It would have been a win-win. United decided to make it a lose-lose.

The Small Word

Now for the small word. United deserves a lot of the abuse it’s getting, but not quite all. An airline’s a huge, very complicated, very expensive operation. It has, literally, lots of moving parts. Planes and their crews have to be here, then there, then there at certain times. If they’re not, people don’t get where they want or need to go when they want or need to get there.

Things happen to prevent that. The plane or crew are here when they should be there. Sometimes the plane’s here and the crew’s there. Maybe thunderstorms grounded flights. Maybe the cabin crews all got the flu or several pilots had unexpected surgery. Maybe some clerk typed in the wrong information or some harried mid-level executive made the wrong decision. Maybe the computers glitched. Stuff happens.

Sometimes you might have to get four crew members to a different airport and the only way you can get them there is on a plane that’s already full and already loaded. If you don’t, a whole planeload of people may find themselves seriously delayed or heading to a hotel for the night. Some of them might really have to get home and hours matter to them.

It doesn’t matter. If you don’t get those four people to the next airport, a whole planeload of people may find themselves seriously delayed or heading to a hotel for the night. Some of them might really have to get home and hours matter to them. One might have a very sick child or a wife just rushed to the emergency room. (Imagine, reader, if you were one of them.)

In other words, sometimes you might have to get four crew members to a different airport and the only way you can get them there is on a plane that’s already full and already loaded. Maybe someone screwed up, or maybe it just happened in a way no one could control.

So what do you do? You try to bribe four people to give up their seats. They bought their tickets knowing this might happen. That’s the deal. (Or am I the only one who reads the fine print?)

Yes, United should have raised the bribe, but at some point you may just have to pick four people to eject. (Sorry, re-accomodate.) If one of them objects, what do you do? You’ve made a fair random choice. It would not be fair to let him stay and randomly pick another person to eject. (Imagine, reader, if you were the fifth person picked when you really, really wanted to get home. Imagine if you were that person when you really, really needed to get home.)

If the Man Doesn’t Move

If the fourth man doesn’t move, you have to call security. If he doesn’t move for them, they’re going to have to pull him out of his seat. That is hard to do in the cramped space, and the man might get hurt, as he did. But that’s his fault. There was him, there were three determined security guys. It’s time to fold.

What’s the alternative? Keep everyone sitting on the plane as security tries to cajole the man into leaving? (Imagine, reader, if you were one of the other people on the plane, stuck in your cramped seat, possibly for hours.) There is no alternative, not a fair one, anyway. And so sometimes force has to be used.

I don’t think much of United Airlines or its president. They made a mess from beginning to end, driven by corporate pettiness and greed. But the passenger forced the situation. United doesn’t deserve all the abuse they’re getting. So that’s my small word for United Airlines.

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  • Thomas

    This was a good balanced examination of the situation. Even though it is easy to mob against the bully, it’s good to remember that there are also considerations on the other side as well.

    That said, besides failing to rely on improving their offers, the other big mistake was dealing with this after boarding the plane instead of before.

    “They let him on the plane, settle in, and then they took his seat.”

  • esscargo55

    Sorry, I don’t agree. United should have simply raised the voluntary offering until the next person volunteered. Especially in this extremely awkward place after every single person was boarded and the aircraft was full of paying passengers. There is no doubt a price where someone would have volunteered to be inconvenienced.

  • epsilon53

    “It doesn’t matter. If you don’t get those four people to the next airport, a whole planeload of people may find themselves seriously delayed or heading to a hotel for the night. Some of them might really have to get home and hours matter to them.One might have a very sick child or a wife just rushed to the emergency room. (Imagine, reader, if you were one of them.)”

    Imagine, author, one of the patients the abused doctor needed to see in the morning was your sick child or even you, because you found a lump? That argument works both ways.

    If it was so important to get those 4 crewmembers to St. Louis for the next morning, after not planning ahead (which is on them), United should have rented a car for the crew to drive to the next airport (4-5hrs away) instead of forcing paying customers to get off the plane.

    • David Mills

      Yes, of course it works both ways. But it doesn’t work both ways evenly. The odds of someone on the other flight being in that situation are much higher than the odds of one randomly selected person being in that situation. An airline would still have to choose to inconvenience one person rather than a 100 or more.

  • Robert Scott

    Airports are hostile environments. Everyone is on edge and eager to get someplace or their job done. United should have done something before ‘anyone’ boarded. Though, I feel that it had more to do with the security and the way they handled the situation. One of the officers should have picked up the mans head before removing him from the airplane. The lack of empathy and training. The price of travel just went up.

  • Bryan

    Hindsight is always 20/20. Regardless of what should have happened, it didn’t for a multitude of reasons probably. I agree with Mr. Mills: “I don’t think much of United Airlines or its president. They made a mess from beginning to end, driven by corporate pettiness and greed. But the passenger forced the situation. United doesn’t deserve all the abuse they’re getting.”

  • freddy fudd

    The bottom line is that United tried to pass ownership of its poor staff planning onto paying customers. All this talk about a legal right to do so is beside the point. Customer-oriented companies just don’t do this. What they do is take ownership of their self-inflicted problems and keep their customers happy. I hope United has learned a valuable lesson.

  • Nunyadambizness

    I disagree. United deserves every bit of the condemnation they’re receiving, plus more. While I agree with your premise of the complexity of the situation, the truth is, they could have saved themselves nearly a Billion $$ of market cap had they offered more for the exchange. One customer was heard to say “I’ll do it for $1600” after they’d made an offer of $800. Do you think if they’d offered $2,000, or $2,500 in exchange for the seat(s) they wouldn’t have had some takers? No, they were trying to squeeze the most they could get out of this situation and it ended up blowing up in their faces. The CEO is a moron for his initial statement about their customer being “belligerent” etc., what he should have said was “I am looking into this situation with the utmost urgency and will have a statement soon.” or something to that effect. Instead, he ran off at the mouth and it killed their stock. Frankly, I hope it’s still going down.

    • Wayne Cook

      Amen!

  • Jennifer Hartline

    I agree with Msgr. Charles Pope’s piece in the Register that the biggest problem here is the moral issue that airlines intentionally overbook flights and are permitted to toss off paying passengers at will. It may be in the fine print, but it’s wrong. It amounts to lying, as Pope explains.
    Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine how United could have handled this any worse. The customer used to always be right. Now the customer is just a nuisance to be extorted.

    • David Mills

      Msgr. Pope should define lying more carefully. The airline offers you a seat for so much money and that arrangement is governed by a contract. That contract has certain qualifications, as contracts so often do. In this case, one of them is that you might be bumped. You don’t have to sign the contract but if you do you’re bound by it. The advantage to you is that the qualification that allows them to bump you also lowers the price of your ticket, and in reality you have only the tiniest chance of ever being bumped. You may think that a good or a bad deal, but it’s a fair deal. It’s not lying.

    • Wayne Cook

      Jen, completely agree and a long history to back it up!

  • Dean Bruckner

    There are no limos that would go from Chicago to Louisville with the crew or passengers or both? No rental cars? No one the airline could pay to drive them?

    No, it’s a sick corporate culture of entitlement that puts itself first, and the customer last. There were plenty of managers, but apparently no leaders, all the way to the top. Any one of them could have broken the chain to this disaster. But they didn’t.

    Target has the legal right to send grown men with unusual ideas about sex into restrooms and changing rooms, alone, with little girls. So you’re OK with that, I guess, because it’s legal. And going outside the law is never, ever warranted. OK, I get it.

    To all those who are still beating on United Airlines, I say, “Hammer away!”

    • cpickerel

      Agreed!

  • Paul

    Am I the only one who found the title confusing??

  • Wayne Cook

    During the time I was employed by the networks to engineer on location sports TV trucks, I flew United once. I was cured. From the desk where I checked in, until I got off the plane, the United staff were arrogant and rude. I swore to never fly them again. From then on I flew American (almost as bad), Continental, and Southwest (my personal fav)

    I am sick of companies who are greedy. Target, United, Rockwell, Esystems, Radio Shack, GM, ad infinitum ad nauseum, United Fruit. Every one of these institutions has gouged and alienated the public. Some have pushed the CIA to overthrow foreign governments to assuage their pained executive profits. Enough!!

  • cpickerel

    I agree for the most part, with your take on the issue. Except I DO think that they deserve all the abuse they’re getting. They handled this in the worst way possible. And then they made it worse by excusing it. Most of us would have complied when faced with security, that is true. But then the same scenario would continue to happen and nothing would ever change. Once in awhile, the system is challenged and, the powers that be have to take a closer look at policies that are in place. And if we are lucky, they will make those changes. Bottom line, in the end, this is possibly going to be a good thing for the rest of us. Don’t forget the couple that deplaned, involuntarily, before this man was asked to deplane. I’d like to hear what they think about the whole thing. They might be glad somebody stood up and said “No!, This isn’t right!” Somebody needed to say it. I am hoping that the DOT looks into the policies and makes some changes that will make the process more fair and balanced. They can excuse it all they want, but the reality is that it is a very bad business decision on their part.

    • David Mills

      I almost agree. By “most,” now that I think of it, I meant about 92%. I’m going to change that to “not quite all.” Thanks.

  • Olaf

    I disagree with the original post. There were plenty of
    things that could have been done, either before the incident or during it. In
    brackets I list the greedy reasons United didn’t implement them.
    1. Have more staff on stand-by at each location (too
    expensive).
    2. Always have 1-2 free seats for such emergency situations
    on each plane (too expensive).
    3. Raise the bribe (too expensive?).
    4. Fly the crew to their destination by other means, e.g. private
    jet, helicopter (too expensive).
    5. Fly the crew on that flight and lease a private jet for
    the 4 bumped passengers. That would be a great experience for those four and a
    PR gimmick (too expensive).

    It just boils down to just one reason, too expensive, and
    the reason behind that is greedy companies and a too competitive market.

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