Pretty much everyone is now aware of the incident in which airline security personnel forcibly ejected a 69-year year old passenger off a United Airlines flight after he refused to accept their cash offer to give up his seat to allow airline personnel to travel on that flight. The videos of the bloodied passenger being dragged off the plane have gone viral big-time. (If you are one of the few people who are not aware of this and have not seen the videos, see my earlier post.)
The CEO of United made things much worse by a series of ham-handed comments and half-hearted apologies before finally saying what he should have said right at the start and issue a groveling apology. And even this may be perhaps because the airline stock prices took a dive. The airline has also said that they will refund the cost of the tickets of everyone on the flight. They must be wishing that they had simply raised the cash offer to coax people to leave because if they had gone high enough, they would undoubtedly have had enough volunteers and it would have cost them a lot less than what their latest move costs. And of course, they will now have to deal with Dao’s lawsuit that is already underway.
The case has taken on many overtones. Especially damaging to United has been the reaction in China because the airline is the dominant carrier between the US and that nation. The video has been viewed over half a billion times on Weibo, the Chinese social media site. The fact that the passenger is of Asian descent (David Dao is a Vietnamese-American) has been seen as yet another example of racism in the US and of the brutality of its police and security forces towards minority groups, which already had a terrible image even before this incident.
There has been, as usual, the inevitable follow-up. Some media have dragged up unflattering events from Dao’s past, even though it is not relevant. Some have argued that he should have left the plane like the other three passengers who were told to leave. There have been others who have suggested that airlines have the right to remove ticketed passengers even after they have boarded. The airline said that the four passengers who had been identified for removal after they had taken their seats were selected randomly. But that is not strictly true. They use criteria that select based on how valuable you are to them. Yves Smith says that the media have misrepresented the case and sets the records straight on several key facts, adding that “This widespread misreporting has the unfortunate effect of making United’s abuse seem like a disastrous handling of a routine problem when it was much worse than that.”
If it is any consolation for those of us who travel economy class, United even mistreats its first class passengers, as in the case where they threatened to put one of them in handcuffs if they did not leave the plane to make room for a ‘higher priority’ passenger.
[Geoff] Fearns, 59, is president of TriPacific Capital Advisors, an Irvine investment firm that handles more than half a billion dollars in real estate holdings on behalf of public pension funds. He had to fly to Hawaii last week for a business conference.
Fearns needed to return early so he paid about $1,000 for a full-fare, first-class ticket to Los Angeles. He boarded the aircraft at Lihue Airport on the island of Kauai, took his seat and enjoyed a complimentary glass of orange juice while awaiting takeoff.
Then, as Fearns tells it, a United employee rushed onto the aircraft and informed him that he had to get off the plane.
Apparently United had some mechanical troubles with the aircraft scheduled to make the flight. So the carrier swapped out that plane with a slightly smaller one with fewer first-class seats.
Suddenly it had more first-class passengers than it knew what to do with. So it turned to its “How to Screw Over Customers” handbook and determined that the one in higher standing — more miles flown, presumably — gets the seat and the other first-class passenger, even though he’s also a member of the frequent-flier program, gets the boot.
“I understand you might bump people because a flight is full,” Fearns said. “But they didn’t say anything at the gate. I was already in the seat. And now they were telling me I had no choice. They said they’d put me in cuffs if they had to.” [My emphasis-MS]
You couldn’t make this up if you tried.
No, you can’t. United Airlines may go out of business at some point but it is going to live forever in business schools where they will use these events as case studies of how not to handle problems.