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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
Inspiration
Prince Harry and Meghan … and So Many Christians: Surrendering Royal Duties for Personal Endeavors
John Burton
More from The Stream
Connect with Us