By now, most of you have no doubt seen the horrifying video of the United Airlines passenger being yanked out of his seat and dragged out of the plane by a couple of security officers. His screams are still echoing around the world: there’s even talk of a boycott against United in China. But in a perverse way, I’m glad it happened.
Not that I bear the poor fellow any ill will. I’m as outraged by his treatment as any of you – and far more than the CEO of United, who had to be prodded into saying “sorry”. But I’m glad the episode has turned the spotlight on how the airlines treat their customers in the pursuit of profit.
At first glance, the whole incident seemed to stem from one of the strange practices that characterize the airline-passenger relationship: overbooking. Industry regulations allow the airlines to sell more seats than the plane actually holds, expecting that a few passengers won’t show up. If they do show up, the airline offers to pay other passengers to take another flight, so there’s the right number of people and seats.
This can be a windfall for travellers with a flexible schedule — like us retirees, as I found out a couple of years ago. But it’s a crazy way to do business: does any other industry work this way? You don’t arrive for a concert to be told they’ve sold your seat to somebody else, so here’s 50 bucks to see the show down the street.
The airline can argue that this avoids them flying with an empty seat. But that no-show seat has already been bought and paid for. Even if the buyer cancels, he or she ends up paying the airline an outrageous fee. It’s just an excuse to “supersize” the revenue from the plane. And it’s time this practice got a hard second look.
In this case, however, overbooking wasn’t the actual problem. As it turns out, United decided at the last minute that it needed to ship four of its employees to Louisville for work the next day. And even though all the passengers were already seated on the plane, it decided to throw four of them off to accommodate its people. That’s when the third-class passengers found out how third-class they really were.
The crew offered the usual compensation for anyone who’d give up their seat – apparently up to $800 U.S., or more. No takers. So they decided to just pick four people and tell them to get off the plane. It’s still undisclosed how they picked the unlucky four; it’s suggested it was done by computer.
Three people got off, grudgingly. And then they came to 69-year-old Doctor David Dao, who said he needed to get home to see his patients the next morning. He wouldn’t budge. The airline crew, determined to get their colleagues his seat, called the cops. And then the whole thing went pear-shaped.
A cellphone video posted on YouTube shows Dr. Dao talking to someone — possibly United — on the phone while they try to convince him to leave.
Then the second, world-famous video showing him being pulled out of the seat, bashing his mouth in the process, and dragged down the aisle like a sack of potatoes as his fellow passengers look on in horror.
What’s wrong here? It’s hard to know where to start. First of all, Dr. Dao presumably paid for his seat, and was lawfully sitting in it. He wasn’t causing a disturbance, or posing a security threat. He did nothing to deserve being thrown off.
If United needed to transport its employees (who apparently took a good hazing when they finally boarded), it was reasonable to ask for volunteers to make seats available. But if no one wanted to get off, the airline should have found another way to get them where they needed to go. Surely, some other airline was flying to Louisville that day.
It shouldn’t be allowed to turf someone out of the seat he bought because of their own staffing problems. And they shouldn’t be allowed to call the cops as if the guy who didn’t want to leave was a criminal. In an emergency, these kinds of measures might be justified — but this was no emergency.
The whole thing smacks of a culture of entitlement: the airlines operate in their own little world of privilege, supported by regulations that give them the power to treat passengers any way they wish. Of course, that mostly means economy-class passengers. As author Helaine Olen wrote in The New York Times this week: “The airlines are seemingly forever coming up with new and innovative ways to coddle an increasingly small group, while treating the majority of fliers with greater and greater contempt.”
United, she notes, just debuted new fold-down seats, with mood lighting and luxury bedding, for business-class passengers. But for economy-class travellers, it’s a world of constant nickel-and-diming – extra charges for choosing your seat, more leg room, a checked bag, a blanket … the list goes on.
This new regime has been highly profitable for the airlines. Once upon a time, it was almost impossible to make money running a major airline. But due to a number of industry mergers and all these new fees, the profits are now rolling in: according to the Times, United reported net income of $2.3 billion U.S. last year. And with the money flowing, things are unlikely to get better for those of us riding in coach.
Maybe it’s time for a new kind of airline — and not the new class of bare-bones budget carriers we’ve been seeing lately. I’m thinking of an airline with decent-sized seats, reasonable change fees, and no extra charges for basic things that should be included in the price of the ticket. And no throwing people off the airplane, like the unfortunate United Airlines passenger, to accommodate their own employees. Perhaps we’d all pay $100 more for our seats. But wouldn’t it be worth it?
Or, on second thought, maybe it’s time for the powers that be to take a second look at airline regulations, with passengers; rights in mind rather than the wellbeing of the airlines. And with the world watching, perhaps Dr. Dao and his lawyer might be the ones to sound the call.