Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

Carlton: Really, United? This is how we fly?

"If I get re-accommodated do I have to pay extra for the head injury?"

Tweet about a passenger who was dragged from his seat Sunday in what United Airlines called an attempt to "re-accommodate" passengers being kicked off a sold-out flight.

We, the paying public, have grown used to being treated like bullied middle schoolers when it comes to air travel.

We are delayed, herded like cattle and jammed into ever-shrinking seats. We are nickeled and dimed for a dry sandwich, a mustard packet, a pillow, for luggage we have the audacity to bring along, for every extra inch of legroom that was, once upon a time, free. If airlines could charge for in-flight oxygen — well, let's not give them ideas.

And we take it — not from every airline, but from enough of them. Because how else do we get there when we need to go far, and fast?

But this week, United Airlines had the extremely bad luck to have bullying behavior recorded on passenger cellphones for all the world to see. (Maybe next they'll institute a no-cellphone-recording policy because it, uh, interferes with flight deck communications.)

In what United officials initially described as an "overbook situation" on a Sunday flight from Chicago, the airline needed four seats for a flight crew that needed to get to Louisville, Ky. (Presumably, it had to work the next overbooked flight.)

Later, United said the flight was not actually overbooked, but sold out.

Passengers who wanted to get where they were going were not interested in giving up seats they paid for even when offered $800. So United proceeded to pick who would get the boot.

Thank cellphones here. Yes, they are annoying when someone is yapping away in the grocery line or talking when they should be driving. But authorities have a hard time executing successful spin post-disaster when there exists actual and appalling evidence of what happened.

Passenger video shows a man who refused to give up his seat being forcibly removed by aviation security officers and dragged down the aisle. His glasses and clothes are askew, his mouth bloodied.

Well, sure. Seems reasonable.

Yes, the passenger — later identified as David Dao —might have handled the airline's boorish demand differently, voicing disagreement as he left of his own accord and writing a searing letter afterward. (I know, fat lot of good.) But yes, we should generally listen when officers tell us to do something since they tend to have authority and also guns. Dissent is sometimes best voiced once a tense moment has passed.

All of which is no excuse for what the world saw.

What happened afterward should be studied in a public relations course called "What Not To Say.'' The airline called the incident "an upsetting event to all of us here at United," because sure, the airline was clearly the injured party. United also apologized for "having to re-accommodate these customers," Dao having been re-accommodated right into a bloody mouth.

No surprise to see United's stock drop in the aftermath. Even the bullied bite back. Later, United apologized, saying, "No one should ever be mistreated this way," something the rest of us knew way sooner.

Can good come from outrage? Travelers once upon a time were left to sit on tarmacs for ungodly hours as food ran out and toilets overflowed. Now some Actual Rules give passengers rights, like the option to deplane in three hours.

We won't pay less for that mustard packet or stretch our legs for free. But with the world watching, the United Overbooking Debacle should make airlines think twice about how to treat the paying public.

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