The media—social media, asocial media, major media, marginal media, all media—has been positively aflame for the past 24 hours with reporting and editorializing on United Airlines’ latest mishandling of a passenger confrontation.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. United’s Sunday-night flight UA3411 between Chicago and Louisville was full—100 percent full—and all passengers were seated and awaiting departure. Four United employees advised the gate agents that they had to be on the flight, in order to operate a flight from Louisville. United agents boarded the aircraft and called for volunteers to take a later flight, offering up to $800 in compensation. No one raised their hand, and United randomly chose four travelers to be involuntarily ejected from the flight. The first three complied, grudgingly. The fourth did not. Following a prolonged verbal dispute, during which the passenger proclaimed that he was a doctor with patients he was scheduled to see and couldn’t change his travel plans, Chicago Aviation Security officers were called to forcibly remove him. He was dragged, kicking and screaming, off the plane.
It was an ugly incident. An incident that could and should have been avoided. And, naturally, it was recorded in gory detail on at least two passengers’ cellphones. The video was posted on social media, and it went viral.
It was front-page news on the New York Times. The Los Angeles Times also featured the story on the front page, alongside two editorials on the topic. The story was everywhere on Twitter and Facebook, replete with newly created memes. (Example: a picture of a United plane overlaid with the copy, “If we cannot beat our competitors, we beat our customers.”)
The United-bashing was near universal, ranging from wrist-slapping (could have handled it better; should have offered more compensation) to full-throated condemnation (never fly them again; there oughtta be a law). There’s a Change.org petition calling for the resignation of United chief Oscar Munoz. China’s People’s Daily led with photos of the passenger’s bloodied face, and suggested that he was the victim of racism (the doctor appears to be of Asian descent). United’s credibility and reputation, already teetering after the recent dress-code incident, took a big hit.
As a former airline P.R. manager, I’m well aware of the difficulties United faced, both in handling the original problem and in dealing with its aftermath. The airline had to choose between bumping four passengers and delaying or cancelling the Louisville flight the four crewmembers were scheduled to operate. Munoz, in his infuriatingly evasive non-apology, had to choose between supporting his workers and issuing a full-throated admission of misbehavior. These are lose-lose choices. And United lost big.
But at the end of the day, the incident itself should come as no great surprise. United’s Contract of Carriage, like other airlines’, allows it to remove passengers involuntarily from a flight. And although United doesn’t do so often, it does do it. As do other airlines. In this case, the affected passenger was intransigent, and things spiraled out of control. It happened on a United flight, but it could have happened anywhere.
What is more surprising than the blow-up is the reaction, both in its extent and in its fervor. I can’t recall another incident that sparked so much outrage by so many people.
Why this? And why now?
There are likely many factors in play here, but what’s readily detectable beneath the anger is frustration. Perhaps it’s frustration with institutions generally, including government, as the recent presidential election might suggest. Perhaps it’s with corporations in general. But inarguably, there’s a high level of frustration with the airlines specifically.
The airlines, naturally, would disagree. They’d point to their financial results (strong profits) and their operational data (flights running more than 80 percent full systemwide), suggesting that their success in these areas can only be predicated on their success in satisfying their customers.
In fact, the airlines’ robust performance simply reflects an imbalance in the supply-demand equation, in the airlines’ favor. People need to travel, however distasteful they may find the experience. And the airline industry—less competitive than ever, with more than 80 percent of domestic capacity controlled by just four carriers—is adept at manipulating flight capacity to retain pricing power in the marketplace. The airlines are doing well in spite of the fact that they’re failing to meet their customers’ needs and expectations.
So travelers, even as they plunk down cash for tickets, are frustrated and angry: at the long lines, at the lack of pricing transparency, at the devaluation of frequent-flyer miles, at the discomfort of crusher seats in coach, at their lack of rights enshrined in Contracts of Carriage and frequent-flyer program rules, at the nickel-and-dimeing disingenuously boosted by the airlines as choice, at the general lack of respect and concern for their welfare.
The revolution may or may not be televised. But the incident that sparked the revolution, if that’s what this turns out to be, was televised. The airlines—not just United—ignore the media firestorm, and the deep-seated anger underlying it, at their peril. At some point, “We’re not going to take it anymore” will become “We’re not going to fly you anymore.”
Reader Reality Check
How frustrated are you with the airline industry?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.