"The Navigator" News Blog

Defending the Indefensible

I’ve read and received a lot of commentary and feedback on the United Airlines situation.  My initial thoughts, and my own episode of passenger abuse, was recapped in my post, “Stop Customer Abuse!”  If you haven’t read it, you might do so now.

Frankly, a lot of the defenses of United Airlines’ conduct in throwing the passenger off the flight are incredible to me.  I think much of what I’ve heard and read reflects the type of society and business culture that we either have become, or are becoming –and should turn away from.  I’ll sum those thoughts up at the end of this post.  For now, though, let me just recap some of the defenses, and I’ll explain why those aren’t really valid.

“Flying is a privilege, not a right.”  I heard this from a United pilot who called into a popular talk radio show.  Really?  Oddly enough, I seldom feel privileged when I fly.  First of all, few of us pay for a ‘privilege.’  I don’t feel privileged when I go through the TSA screening routine, nor when I sit in small, uncomfortable seats.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mind flying.  But I think the ‘privilege’ probably feels different if you’re PAID to be there rather than the one paying.

“We have rules – we have to put off unruly passengers for our safety.”  Horse puckey. The passenger was, by all accounts, perfectly reasonable and calm UNTIL he was told to get off the plane, giving up the seat that he paid good money for.  I’d be angry too; wouldn’t you?

“United’s flight crew absolutely had to be in Louisville by the next morning.  That’s why they had to put passengers off the plane.”  I’m guessing that this situation didn’t just spring up; why didn’t United plan accordingly for this?  They could have stopped selling seats on the plane when there were four seats left for the flight crew, for instance.  Or – and I know this is radical – they could have found another flight on another carrier going to Louisville and put those people on THAT flight.  They’d have probably gotten better service there anyway.

“Denial of boarding is usually handled in a more mature fashion.”  This little bit of genius came from United’s past CEO.  Leaving aside the issue of calling a guy who spent money to fly your airline immature, the fact is that the boarding itself went just fine.  Things went haywire AFTER the guy had boarded, and they decided to pull him back out of his seat.  I’ve also heard a couple of lawyers say that this is a very important distinction.  According to these lawyers – and keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer – the airlines can do what they want, basically, before the passenger boards the plane.  However, after the passenger boards the plane and sits in his assigned seat, that leeway gets much smaller.  This could make things very interesting when this dispute makes it to the legal arena.

“I heard the guy had mental issues, drug problems, etc.”  A red herring.  Again, by all accounts, the passenger was perfectly peaceful and calm until he was ordered to give up his seat.  From that point, he might (or might not) have had issues that escalated the situation, but why does that matter?  If United simply lives up to their promise of getting him from Chicago to Louisville, there’s no problem.

“Hey, they offered $800.  That’s generous; why didn’t he just take it?”  First of all, it’s the passenger’s choice to take the offered compensation.  When no one took the offer, United should have simply kept upping the offer until enough people accepted it to accommodate their employees – if said employees had to be on that plane.  Second, what is seldom reported is that the $800 offer is not cash money.  It’s a voucher for more flying on United.  Given the situation, why in the world would anyone want to get MORE flying on United?  I was involved in a similar situation years ago (with an airline that wasn’t Southwest), and the conversation went like this:  Me – “Is that $500 offer cash?”  Them – “No, it’s a voucher for more airfare on our airline.” Me – “Never mind.”  Them – “Why not?”  Me – “Because if I ever fly your airline again, it’ll be an accident.”  Want to sway people?  Wave $100 bills.

“There are rules, regulations, a contract that goes with the ticket, etc.”  Yes.  There is a contract online that you can download and view.  I’ve never viewed it, and I’m betting that few travelers – even frequent ones – have.  It basically covers the airline’s behind legally.

But – and this gets to my point in this entire piece – what ever happened to simple right and wrong?  United is ducking and covering behind contracts, policies, and legalese.  What amazes me, though, is that during this entire sad episode, not a single involved United employee stopped what was going on and said, “You know, to hell with our policy.  This is WRONG.  This is not how you treat people who spent money with us.”  At no point during the physical assault on the passenger did any of the “security” personnel stop and say, “Hey, guys, you know, maybe beating the snot out of this guy isn’t really the right thing to do.”  I’m not talking about reading from a policy manual; I’m talking about employing simple humanity.

At what point did we begin substituting policies and legalese for simple morality and sense of right and wrong?  We’re becoming, in too many ways, a business culture that values what we can get away with, rather than fulfilling promises and doing what’s right.  It’s at times like this when I think of what my grandfather told me.

“Troy, when it’s possible, just do business on a handshake.  If a man’s handshake isn’t any good, his signature won’t be either.”