United Airlines Has A Bigger Problem Than You Think

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United has a big, stupid, obvious mess on its hands.

Big because it dragged a bloodied, ticketed passenger off a plane for the simple crime of wanting to go where he paid to go. Stupid, because it was entirely avoidable. Obvious, because for all our shock, nobody was particularly floored to learn that a major airline had mistreated a paying customer in such a ridiculously over-the-top way.

We live in an era in which everything transpires in real time; communication is immediate and asymmetric. It’s never been harder to control the story, not when everyone has the power to film and mass disseminate in real time at their literal fingertips (an ability that would make news organizations of just a decade ago fall over in jealousy). It’s a simple matter of hitting “Go Live” on Twitter Periscope or Facebook Live and broadcasting to the whole world.

The upshot of all this is that messaging isn’t unidirectional anymore. People are paying attention to a much larger conversation than they once were, and they’re keyed into stories about the abuse of power in ways they haven’t ever been before. That’s a big part of why this story, and others like it, spread so rapidly and reach instantaneous viral status.

It’s a foolish person who says that the airline industry’s standing in American culture is remotely positive. After decades of declining service quality paired with sharply rising prices and the ongoing indignities of security theatre (which, it happens, you can simply pay to avoid, strongly suggesting that airport security is less about security than the implication of it), people resent the hell out of these companies. The incident with United was exactly as unsurprising as it was controversial. Donald Trump is president; the idea that an airline would begin actually assaulting people is already passé before you’ve had time to digest it.

It’s another example of the ever-continual decline of its still worsening reputation for shoddy, careless service alongside an almost Kafkaesque hostility to the people it is ostensibly in the business of moving from place to place. It goes without saying that it should never have gone this far, but half of the outrage is over how simple it would have been to prevent; letting one of the people who volunteered to surrender their seat to end the standoff actually do so, or perhaps booking a private flight for the flight crew it needed to transport. There isn’t even a question of how or why this happened; of course, the great shrugging mass of American opinion sighs, of course this is what happened. Why should we believe it would have happened any other way?

Managing the fallout would have been simple, too; a swift apology and a promise of restitution, principle be damned. But United chose none of these courses, first insisting on mercilessly executing a computer’s random selection in stubborn defiance of the actual on-the-ground situation, and second by digging themselves in deeper with an incredibly deficient public response.

While I disagree with most of the rest of the piece, Kevin Williamson is right when he points out that people hate capitalism precisely for this sort of thing; faced with uncooperative customers, United simply used armed men to drag a passenger off a flight he paid for. He had no recourse, was given no options. As Williamson puts it, there is an in-your-face asymmetry of power. You must accept what is handed to you, and if you do not, you will be made to. The first priority of United should have been to deflect this story; instead, it doubled-down on it by pretending it didn’t exist.

United CEO Oscar Munoz, in the immediate aftermath of the incident simply apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” after the video had long since wildly proliferated throughout the internet. Again, this was video of a bloodied man being dragged off an airplane he had paid to be on by hired goons sent by the company he had paid. Couple that with a non-apology that smacks more of fear of lawsuits than a genuine commitment to improving how it treats its customers (something regular fliers are already skeptical airlines have any interest in doing), and the attitude that the airline sees its passengers more as liabilities than customers solidifies, taking shape in the air with clear, definite outlines. “We’re sorry this happened,” it seemed to say. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t do it again.”

This is a disastrous outcome for United, because not only has it lost control over the story (which it was never going to have, let’s be entirely honest), not only has it leaned into it in a way that reinforces every single previous stereotype the public has of airlines, not only has it fed into the current fascination with the arbitrary exercise of power – but it has shifted all of these narratives onto itself. United has replaced the defunct USAir as the living embodiment of everything godawful about air travel.

It didn’t have to be this way. But recovering now may be too little too late; United doesn’t simply need to make this situation right – it has to rectify the larger systemic issues which make air travelers feel as though they are potentially navigating an Orwellian hellscape every time they need to get from PDX to DFW.

In other words, it needs to transform “come fly the friendly skies” from a slogan into a value statement – and then bring it to life in its day-to-day operations. It has already issued a more appropriate apology, promising a full review by April 30 to ensure this never happens again. It has also offered to compensate passengers. But none of that addresses what has become at this point, since the 2010 merger with Continental, seven years of increasingly callous, inhumane service characterized both by reducing capacity while jacking up prices in an ongoing mission to ensure every possible seat is filled and by creating conditions in which people can expect to be treated poorly; for example, “basic fares” without the promise of dedicated seating or charging for overhead storage. United owns the terrible experience of travel.

Getting out from under that is going to take a lot more than a public apology and the promise of an investigation. It means taking a good hard look at its attitude toward its service and its customers, and the structures it has put in place that perpetuate these situations. It means taking immediate steps, like eliminating baggage fees and the basic fare, that may cost them short-term profit but generate real, positive goodwill.

And it means that United needs to stop chasing the golden snitch of efficient routing to the exclusion of all else. Cold machine efficiency will never and can never take the customer experience into account except insofar as it measures the amount of suffering that can be inflicted before one starts losing money.

Nobody expects United to be a charity, but cramming miserable, resentful people into a sardine can isn’t the only way to make a buck. It’s a recipe for disaster that has seemed to reach critical mass, and it’s time United got serious about doing better.