Last week I was drawn to the story about Dr. David Dao, a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines plane for refusing to give up his seat. Boy, was that ever the worst move United could have made!
I guess the bottom line here is that violence is not the way to go. I can’t even imagine the line of thinking that allowed anyone on the payroll of United Airlines, or anyone acting under the banner of airport security, or any member of the local police called in for backup to treat that passenger in a way similar to how they might handle a known murderer on the run.
Well, it is all coming back to haunt them now. The videos of their plan-in-action to remove that passenger — and their persistence till “the job” was done — showed the world one way to do something that the recipient of the action did not want done.
United Airlines has been in business at least since the early ‘30s. And it’s certainly one of the largest airlines as well. One would think that just about every kind of passenger situation has come up during that time on at least one or another of its planes in the fleet. And one would think that the “job description” book that all businesses should have would say whose job it is to do what, how best to handle situations, and what would NOT be acceptable behavior within the scope of one’s job.
And what about those weekly or monthly staff meetings in which everyone gets to bring up any challenges they’ve had since the last meeting, so hopefully the input gathered from all those present could be added to the job description book to help with those particular challenges, including how NOT to handle them. Surely there have been other passengers who did not like the idea of being asked to leave the plane to accommodate someone else, and there must also be several anecdotes that’ve been collected over the years as to how those situations were best handled.
Some really smart businesses, especially the major ones, even have practice runs on how to handle emergencies — and we can all now see that removal of a reluctant passenger is easily within the scope of a possible emergency — unless they don’t really mind looking foolish (on the mildest end of the public spectrum), stupid — they did WHAT? — or like totally unfeeling and uncaring monsters (somewhere on the way to the far end of the public spectrum). It’s really hard to imagine how that Dr. Dao situation could have looked (and been) any worse than it was. But then, apparently United has had other experience in being rough and tough with the passengers, and saying whatever they felt would “do the trick” to get them to conform to their wishes, no matter how it looked or felt to the passenger.
One doesn’t have to go that far back in time to find one of those “little incidents” that caused United to use its heavy-handed tactics on a passenger-removal incident. The treatment of Geoff Fearns, 59, 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, is just one example. Fearns had to fly to Hawaii for a business conference, but needed to return earlier than booked, so he chose to buy a $1,000 full-fare, first-class ticket back. He boarded the aircraft, took his seat, and was all settled in awaiting takeoff when a United employee rushed onto the aircraft and informed him that he had to get off the plane. When he asked why, he was told because the flight was overfull, according to reporter David Lazarus of the LA Times.
Fearns refused to go, having paid full fare and needing to get back to LA as soon as possible, so when a United staff member told him to leave the plane, he naturally held his ground. That’s when United threatened to put him in handcuffs if he didn’t comply.
“That’s when they told me they needed the seat for somebody more important who came at the last minute,” Fearns said. “They said they have a priority list and this other person was higher on the list than me.”
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, reported Lazarus in his article.
That’s when the real trouble started. Now there were more first-class passengers than seats to accommodate them. So, according to the LA Times article, United crew members then 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 passenger 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.”
And that was then. Apparently they haven’t learned much since. Yet other airlines are learning from United’s poor judgment and making policy that can insure airline safety in that regard, such as stating no one is ever to be dragged out of their seat, and it is much better to keep upping the incentive for deplaning until someone takes the offer than to force it upon any paying passenger.
So while last week’s dragging-out episode is still fresh in our minds, we hear that a couple on their way to be married were asked to leave a United Airlines plane. Why? Well, to sum it up according to one or another accounts of the incident, when the couple got to their assigned seats, someone was stretched out across the seats sleeping. Rather than disturb him, they took other available seats (the plane was far from overcrowded), but apparently the seats they took would have cost more than the ones they paid for. A somewhat uncomfortable exchange then ensued and they were asked to leave the plane.
Contrast United’s way of dealing with THAT situation to what they could have done for some free and good publicity, such as allowing the newlyweds-to-be to stay in the slightly better seats as their gift to them, to at least make a small dent in their comeback image. Why couldn’t they have calculated the differential in the cost (let’s say it would’ve been even another $200 more each, which I’m sure is on the high side for an estimate) and figured that it would be a small enough price to pay to avoid any additional bad publicity, which they certainly don’t need at this time. Remember, the plane was not packed, and the couple was not taking seats reserved for any other passengers.
Again, that story may go through several changes and end up with a different face, but the point behind the details remains the same: Airlines must make better choices when dealing with how they treat their passengers; and to help them with that obvious and necessary change in their usual way of doing things, they need to understand the logic behind losing a few hundred (or even a few thousand) here or there with one passenger or another (whether in concessions, incentives or mistakes), and compare that to how much more they are losing in good will because of the bad publicity they continue to get when acting in their usual way — with no regard for anything but getting their own way.
And to think their very name, “United,” implies the peaceful coming together of people. They’ve come a long way all right — in the other direction, away from “the friendly skies.”