Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sorry, we gave you the short straw and we’re throwing you off the plane--United

Recently on a United Airlines flight from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, a young looking 69 year old Asian man was forcefully pulled out of his seat and ejected from the plane.

Videos taken from other appalled passengers showed airport security force dragging an unconscious man along the aisle to the front door. Blood was streaming from his face.

According to eyewitnesses on the plane, the passenger refused to give up his seat because he, being a physician, has patients to see when he gets home.

United explained that the airline overbooked and had asked for volunteers to give up their seats. Apparently not enough found the inducements sufficiently attractive to do so.

The airline then alleged that the unfortunate passenger was randomly drawn by computer program to “voluntarily” give up his seat. When confronted by the bad luck of the draw, the Asian man explained that he has patients at risk waiting for him, and furthermore he wanted to consult with his lawyer.

The airline then called in the Chicago’s finest to bodily eject the man from the plane without so much as a gentle “please.” The official explanation from the airline made the matter even worse.

United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for the airline for having to overbook (greed made me do it) and then having to force passengers to give up their seats. Munoz really riled public opinion against the airline when he then sent an internal memo praising the crew involved in the incident for “following company procedure.”

Mind you, Mr. Munoz was recently honored as “communicator of the year,” by PR Week. “An excellent leader who understands the value of PR,” the trade publication said.

PR professionals are now probably smacking their lips over the prospects of the vast amount of work in store for them to help United restored the airline’s image and reputation. Thorough review and revision of industry practice and company procedure will likely be part of their workload.

The airlines have profited hugely from this era of big data.  Based on their accumulated experience, they can anticipate and calculate to sell out every flight. (How often have you as a passenger flown on a partly loaded plane nowadays?)

Thus when the airline computer makes the right call, the company makes scads of money. Every once in a while, when more passengers come on board than anticipated, you would expect the airline to take the ownership of the consequences rather than ask the hapless passengers to walk off the plank.

Apparently, the UAL stock price took a hit immediately after the incident went viral on social media. One commonly expressed concern was that the outraged Chinese customers would stop flying on the airline. The lucrative China to US routes represents an important source of revenue for the airline.

Over the long term, whether the company market cap will continue to do well will depend on whether passengers decide to fly on United or not. I am a million miler on United, but if the airline can force me off the plane at random, I am not sure I will want to fly on this airline any more.

To reassure me as a passenger, United needs to tell me that the airline does not as a matter of policy pick on Asians for arbitrary brutality. And, from now on, the airline will have revised their standard procedure so that I will not run the risk of being taken off any flight without my consent.

A companion piece in the Asia Times observed that what happened on the United flight pales in comparison with the way passengers are treated by airlines in China. I am nonplused by the point of the beggar thy neighbor discussion.

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