The Blog

  • April 11, 2017
  • United breaks guitars and now assaults customers

    A few years ago, fed up with the cattle call atmosphere, poor service, decrepit planes, inadequate room for my femurs and kneecaps, and draconian boarding procedures, I quit flying United Airlines.

    I had a significant number of miles in my account but I reasoned that I wouldn’t fly United for pleasure if they were so terrible for business travel. So I burned my miles flying first class to meetings and events and then I picked other airlines. Initially I missed things like early boarding and departure lounges but I always found solace in knowing that for a few bucks I could get a sandwich or a drink before leaving and that no matter when I boarded it wouldn’t matter because we were all going to the same place. On the other hand, giving up going through United’s security screening at places like SFO was like being deprived of rutabagas.

    Last week another carrier canceled my flight home and I picked a United flight in desperation. As a one-off I thought the airline had improved somewhat but not enough to make it a regular choice again. Then the Twitter-sphere began filling up with reports of company agents assaulting customers to make them relinquish seats.

    If you are not familiar with the story, the short form is that a flight from Chicago to Louisville was over sold on Sunday and the airline needed three seats for crew members who had to work a flight out of Louisville the next morning. They offered various inducements to get people to give up their seats, up to $800 by some reports. But the passengers wouldn’t accommodate so the airline called security to physically remove three people. Yes. The story and video making news involves a man (a doctor no less) being dragged down the airplane’s aisle with a bloody lip.

    What were they thinking? Were they thinking? What were they thinking with?

    In addition to the obvious assault and battery on a customer, there’s a little problem of unilaterally voiding a contract that lawyers for both sides will spend many billable hours resolving. But the main point in this age of cellphone cameras and CRM is how egregiously the airline acted in the furtherance of its goals and to the detriment of its customers.

    As it happens there’s something that almost anyone dealing with United can do about this. I am thinking of how effective the sponsors’ boycott of Bill O’Reilly’s show has been. More than 52 sponsors have pulled ads in the wake of a New York Times story that Fox has paid out at least $13 million to settle sexual harassment suits by the ancient-enfant-terrible.

    Boycotting United as I have done might not be possible for many people so I won’t advocate it simply because I believe that situations like this require creativity. So here’s a modest proposal. Pick a trip and pay for it with your miles rather than cash. Burning miles will take some debits off the balance sheet and this won’t affect the company very much, but depriving it of the cash normally expected from ticket sales very well might if enough people do it.

    This small act of solidarity might give executives a glimpse of what it might look like if a significant number of customers actually head for the doors. It might also give a few passengers the idea that they can liberate themselves from the frequent flier lock-in euphemistically called a customer loyalty program. Who knows? It could even make airlines in general a bit more sensitive to customers.




    Published: 7 years ago

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