More On United And Operations

First of all yet another take on defending what happened. The situation keeps getting worse for United since my post the other day.

1) “You can’t just kick a paying customer off the plane!” Psssst! It’s in the fine print. They can, indeed, do just that. And it’s not an airline specific rule, it’s a commercial aviation rule. Every ticket you purchase comes with a plethora of fine print–you know, the stuff we just click ‘next’ on without actually reading what we are agreeing to. Yeah, that. Well, it’s in there, and you checked the ‘I agree’ box when you purchased your ticket. You can read about it and oh-so-much-more here. Kind of makes you want to read all those tiny words on your next phone update before you click ‘I agree’, huh? You should. United did not break any law, and he agreed to the policy and possibility of involuntary bump when he bought his ticket. And so do you.

2) “Kicking a paying customer off an airplane!? I’m taking my business to Southwest!” Ummmm, okay. But just be sure you understand that every major airline, Southwest included, has a similar policy for involuntary bumping in a ‘must ride’ scenario. Don’t believe me? It’s called the contract of carriage. If you’re really bored, you can read Southwest’s here. Or Delta’s here. Believe me, it’s in there.  This could have been any airline. In fact, it happens all the time. Most people just don’t wrestle the feds in the aisle.

3: “So what’s this ‘must ride’ nonsense anyway? They shouldn’t bump a paying customer for a free employee ride!” I’m afraid you’re going to have to take this up with the federal government, not United. And it’s actually pretty important to you as an airline traveler anyway. They were not ‘freeloading home’. That’s called non-rev and they have to wait in line behind your checkbook and often don’t make it home to their families if flights are booked (believe me, I know). No, this was a must fly, a positive space situation. In layman terms, it means that a crew must be flown to an airport to man a flight in order to avoid cancellation of said flight due to crew unavailability. This is a federal DOT regulation, not an airline one. The airlines are required to do so to avoid disruption of air traffic. In other words, if there are no willing volunteers and they need seats to get a crew somewhere to avoid disruption of aviation flow, they can, will, must by federal regulation bump people for the better good of the 1000’s. Why? Because one cancelled flight has a serious domino affect in the delicate, complicated world of connections and aviation law.

4: “It’s the airline’s fault for not planning better!” You obviously have no clue about the complexities of aviation travel and should do some research. There are about a million and one things that can cause a crew shortage including but not limited to weather, maintenance, weather, connecting fight delays, weather, FAA timeout regs, and did I mention weather? I wish I could control Mother Nature because I would be one filthy rich person. But I can’t. And neither can United. So they inconvenience one, or four, to keep hundreds on track. Do the math. And of course, if we were on the other end of this thing, we’d be tirading and blowing up the internet because United didn’t bump a passenger to make sure our flight didn’t get cancelled and left hundreds stranded. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. We’re a fickle crowd, we social media folks.

Sarah Hoyt has a good piece

Flying Blind

And reblogs a VERY good piece.

Let’s ignore the end result since technically the cops did it (though United called them in and what they said about why they needed cops could have affected behavior) and say the man was merely hauled off kicking and screaming.

1) Flight was not oversold. United’s carrier contract defines overbooked as too many paying passengers with tickets.

“Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.” And “Passenger means any person, except members of the crew, carried or holding a confirmed reservation to be carried in an aircraft with the consent of the carrier.”

Now, technically, this could include employees who were not actually crew on that flight, yes. HOWEVER, this was not a case of passengers with valid confirmed tickets that checked in. The employees were put on the flight last minute, past the valid check in time, and did not have a confirmed reservation, again, this was last minute.

They had employees who needed a ride last minute, without holding confirmed reservations and without checking in on time, which puts them outside the definition. That takes them out of the provisions discussing why you may be booted when they overbook (which I think is BS, but more on that further down.) And, this was employees being put on last minute because something went wrong. Someone screwed up. I don’t know if it was the airline or the airport, but something happened, and instead of dealing with it as their own problem, they made it their customers’ problem.

2) United’s contract talks about when you may be denied boarding, not kicked off. They should have dealt with this before loading people on the plane if they wanted to hide behind those provisions. (Small note, I can no long find the provision, though it was there yesterday. I suspect it is #9, which is deleted right now, probably being updated to cover situations such as this.

3) Yes, they could have done something unusual and sent the 4 in a rental car. I’ve seen arguments saying the kicking off is SOP. Too bad. This wasn’t a standard situation. When you have something unusual happen, like 4 personnel who must be in a place tomorrow and you’re out of seats, you get creative. Also saw an argument that they had union contracts. Irrelevant. That’s their problem. You don’t get to break one contract to fulfill another. No, really, in terms of contract law, not actually a legal excuse. And if the employees threw a fit because they had to drive, then those are some piss poor employees. Which is another reason not to fly them, because they hire/train/create piss poor employees.

4) They could have offered more. They were up to $800 (I have heard one report today saying $1000 so that may be true) with no takers, so yeah, they could have offered more. People have argued there’s a cap and yes, there is. But United wasn’t at that cap! (quick google says $1350 for over 4 hour delay.) They could have offered more. You are asking people to be inconvenienced, you sweeten the pot.

5) When they didn’t get volunteers at their paltry (i.e. not the max) offer, the employees started coping an attitude. According to reports, they got mean, snapped at people who asked for them to increase the amount offered, and told people the plane wasn’t leaving till 4 people got off, so basically holding it hostage. And it wasn’t just what was said, it was the way it was said. Like these people were things to be ordered around, herded, bullied. (See where I’m going with this yet?)

6) People keep saying the bumping passengers is normal like that’s a defense. That’s not a defense, that goes to the heart of the problem! The fact that people can argue this was acceptable at all and actually have a leg to stand on is the problem.

Here’s where I’m going to segue into the greater issue this incident has brought to light and my argument for the underlying reason why people are so upset. The reason this has blown up and United is getting dragged through the mud is complicated, and not at the same time, and has a few factors leading to the blow up.

1) See above, the employees handled this badly at every step. This was not one point in time where bad things happened and a guy got bloodied. This was screw ups and bad customer service at every step. Every time an employee could have done something in this situation, he took the path of least customer service. (Bumping passengers instead of reaccommodating employees, getting people on then trying to pull them off, getting nasty with your customers when they aren’t (gasp) giving up the seat they paid for, not raising the bribe to the max allowed, and then, and then, calling the cops on the guy refusing to lose his seat when you could have just went back to offering more, asking for another passenger since this one needed to get home, ect… No, they went straight to, I’m the boss and you need to do what I say or I use force, you stupid little widget) Already off to a bad start, United.

2) People get bumped all the time because airlines overbook. (Again, this wasn’t overbooking here, but in general that’s when passengers get bumped.) So we’re all watching this and are scared because it could be us. Because this is now the norm.

3) Airlines have stopped worrying about customer service because they all have a bad rep and close to a monopoly. I’m already seeing the opinion pieces saying this will blow over in a month or three and it won’t really hurt United overall because people only have so many choices when they fly. And they’re right. Which leads into 4.

4) Airlines have stopped acting like companies providing a service and started acting like government employees.

Yep, now we’re getting to the heart of the problem. Airlines, private companies, have been told they are “essential,” and are treated as such. They get government subsidies, they get government powers (you have to do what they say or risk legal action), and low and behold, they have started to act like government employees.

They do not act like they are beholden to the public. They do not act like they are providing a service. They act like they are beholden to their bosses, and the public are these annoying sheep they have to heard, and it is perfectly alright for them to push the sheep around if they aren’t cooperating.

And why? Because they no longer consider customer service to be important to getting business, because they have the government propping them up and patting their heads.

Tell me, what other service could get away with this? You have a server toss you out of a restaurant, you go someplace else. You have a retail chain with rude workers, same thing. But airlines do not act this way, nor do they have to.

And we’ve hit the problem. We are no longer customers to them. We are sheep. We are widgets. If they lose our business, oh well, because there’s millions more, and they aren’t going to be gone forever necessarily, because there’s so little competition.

So they’ll ride this out, people will forget, and next time they’re booking a flight, they’ll go with cheapest/most direct/best times, all those other factors, and maybe pick a different airline if all other factors are the same.

And that’s why this has gotten so huge and people are enraged, and trying to rip United apart. Because we want to make an example out of them. We’ve already gone down the path of being treated like sheep being herded on and off planes, crammed into tiny seats (no one’s making fun of how small I am now, are they? ;), ordered around like we’re prisoners, and if we argue, they have the power to toss us off or even have us arrested.

You want to talk about abuse of power? Give a service person the power to have anyone who pisses them off arrested, and make it so broad, that the absurd result of you being arrested for arguing is no longer hyperbole, but what can actually happen.

When I ended my last post on this with that little book from the New Haven RR, I think that Aimee’s fourth point;”4) Airlines have stopped acting like companies providing a service and started acting like government employees” was sitting in the back of mind because of what happened on an Amtrak trip to the West Coast in 1993.  Now the train I was on, The Empire Builder  had delay issues right from the start.  The train left late from Chicago because a connecting train was late. As in several hours late.  This was in the late winter and with problems delays were inevitable and the dominos were dropping all ever the place. Still the crew of the train was top rate and our car was lucky enough to have what may have been about the last true Pullman porter still working in car service.  Then disaster hit.  The Burlington Northern, which owns the line the Empire Builder uses had a derailment which closed the line between Eastern Washington and Western Montana.  This was reported to us by the train crew several hours before we got to Western Montana, specifically Whitefish Montana where the decision was made to swap Empire Builder trains.  This was done by hiring busses to drive 600 odd passengers and their luggage from Whitefish to Spokane WA, in the middle of the night.  To me this has to be one of the best cases of people working to overcome adversity in the face to extreme problems ever. Yet when all was done, I don’t think that even a single piece of luggage was lost.  These were government employees providing a service and doing whatever they could to overcome extreme adversity.  Frankly the people at United could learn from this.

Providing transportation to people has always been a rather thankless task. Yet the history has been traditionally that the people working to provide that service went above and beyond to proved the best service they could for everybody.  Apparently United has decided as a corporation to spit on that tradition.  Instead they have found it easier to act like petty bullies when things get a little rough.  Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves what has happened to just about every thing in business and how we got to the point where Aeroflot has become a better airline to fly than an American airline.

Update: more on the ethical part of this.

Consider this.

These people maintain a high standard of expectation of themselves, even in the most menial job under the highest stress.  Yet the United Employees were so arrogant that they just rolled right over their customers.

It just keeps getting worse.


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