On the assumption that everyone in the online universe has now viewed the video of a plain-clothes policeman dragging a United Airlines passenger off his flight (see below), a few brief observations about United’s
deeply evil nature failure of problem-solving skills.
Sample blog and article comments:
“The whole situation is a revealing, sad picture of life in Trump’s America, where corporate Gestapo can steal what a man paid for and beat him up and it is still his fault.”
“United Airlines’ forcible removal of a passenger exposed the everyday violence that keeps capitalism running.”
Unlike some people, I don’t think this incident illustrates how commercial aviation or the moden world is turning into an uncaring demon-infested MBA-run fascist hellscape. I kind of think the opposite. It does tell you something about the modern world, but what it tells you is a little less pessimistic than you might think.
To start at the beginning: almost all airlines overbook, because a fairly predictable percentage of people don’t turn up for their flight, and airline margins are horribly low. The problems start on that unusual or just unlucky day when you find a much higher-than-normal percentage of passengers turning up.
At United, procedures in this situation seem to dictate that ticketing staff make a public announcement asking people to give up their seats, and offering flight vouchers. On the day, United offered first US$400 and then US$800 – but only got two takers. It needed four.
This is apparently the point in United’s playbook where it starts ordering people off planes. Bad idea – or more accurately, lack of ideas.
The first problem is that the four people United needed to get onto the plane were United staff whom the company wanted to go to Louisville; it’s not clear that “overbooking” actually happened, though everything played out as if it had. A smart United supervisor could have put them in a chartered plane or for that matter in a taxi; Louisville is less than five hours from Chicago by road. But apparently no-one had the sense or authority to do that.
The second problem is that ordering people off planes is terrible customer relations and a horrible thing to do to someone, even if they go quietly. Just offer more money until someone takes it, United! But apparently no-one at the scene was empowered to do that, either.
The third problem is that United rival Delta has a superior solution to this problem. At check-in, they explicitly ask passengers how much they’d be willing to accept to get off the plane if necessary*. That makes the deal more apparent and gets everyone agreed on what can happen if the plane ends up with too many passengers. The result is that Delta gets far more passengers to voluntarily forego their flight, while keeping far fewer passengers on the ground involuntarily. Sweet. But either United hasn’t thought of copying this, or they didn’t understand that the United process was, in an age of smartphones and social media, a disaster waiting to happen.
Fourth, when the selected passenger refused to leave the plane, United staff felt they had to follow the rules exactly and call the police. The pragmatic move might have been for United staff to say: “He’s not budging. If we call the police, the situation’s out of our control. Let’s find someone else a little less totally invested in being in Louisville an hour from now.”
Having done some work on customer service processes myself, I know the desire to have consistent rules to which you don’t make exceptions. “If we do it for him, eventually we’ll have to do it for everyone,” we say. Except it’s often not true.
I also know the feeling of encountering a colleague who doesn’t want to apologise or compensate customers for bad experiences. Often it’s for “legal reasons”. But that often turns out to be a bad excuse too; you need to consult a good commercial lawyer to know for sure.
There are many reasons to compensate customers, but one is simply that when you pay compensation, the damage you’re doing actually goes right into the accounts where people can see it and start assigning accountability, instead of invisibly eroding your brand value. Another is that in the real world, most wronged consumers simply want an honest, committed admission of wrongdoing.
A lot of businesses have figured these things out, and most staff understand that having customers dragged along the floor in front of other customers is not going to enhance their employer’s business. United’s biggest problem is probably cultural: it hasn’t given staff the freedom to act like decent sensible people in difficult situations. (Or it’s possible that some of the least competent and empathetic people in the company were all together on the plane. Unlikely, but possible.)
So yes, the whole incident was terrible for the poor bloke being dragged violently out of the plane. But it was also an extremely unusual exception. That’s why it has millions of views on YouTube.
And it underlines that in a world which must try to fill thousands of planes with millions of passengers every week, we normally get this pretty right. That’s kind of astonishing. In a less well-ordered society, people might fight it out all the time for a right to a seat on the plane. Except that, you know, there wouldn’t be any planes …
Even weirder, this set of arrangements for getting people to co-operate is duplicated thousands of times in other activities. Somehow, using culture and rules and market transactions, we manage to rely on a globe-spanning network of total strangers to get stuff done every day. It’s kind of a miracle.
Note 1: After I initially wrote this for Troppo, a couple of US psychologists wrote a similar diagnosis at The Conversation, exploring why United’s culture needs to loosen up and be less rules-based.
Note 2: The pay-for-seats strategy is an unexpected adoption of a theory proposed, apparently in jest, by the economist Julian Simon in a short 1977 journal article titled “An Almost Practical Solution to Airline Overbooking”. Who says economists don’t give practical advice?
Note 3: By law US airlines apparently can’t offer more than US$1350 per flight in compensation, a figure probably in need of raising. But United didn’t even go to that limit.
Note 4: There’s also a suggestion that union rules would have prevented the crew being taxied to Louisville. A chartered business jet still seems like it would have solved problems here, though.
Note 5: On plane travel generally, I’m still mostly with Louis CK:
But, you know, maybe we amend the title to “Almost Everything Is Amazing …”