Oh! United; are we?

Imagine for a moment that you booked a hotel room with your favorite chain and had checked in and taken possession of your space for the specified period. Then, once in the bed, loud banging comes from the door with admonitions from hotel security to open the door. These folks ask you to (immediately) leave the room because it was overbooked. What would you do?

The shocking images of a United Airlines passenger being dragged out the plane are hurtful enough that there is no justifiable policy for it. The airlines claim to reserve themselves the right to “de-baord” passengers based on fare class, frequent traveler profile, etc. if overbooked, thereby signaling that they discriminate based on economic status. Booking a ticket on an airline is based on seats’ availability on your chosen route for the specific day you wish to travel. Period. Once the carrier takes your money, they owe you a seat, much like a hotel assures you a bed for the duration of stay.

The passenger, in this case, had no tool other than the booking site to ascertain whether seats were available. I too would have been irate if I were asked to leave the seat for which I had paid. In essence as a passenger, by buying a ticket, I lease a seat for the duration of flight. Further, by taking the money and issuing (me) a ticket, a contract is entered into between the airline and the passenger. Just like any other contract, modifications require agreement from both parties. The use of force is not an option.

United CEO, brazenly came out in support of his “employees” for doing their jobs. Really? Why is United overbooking flights in the first place? With millions of dollars in revenues, the company cannot afford a better booking system? Some people have taken to calling for a boycott of United Airlines. Others have blamed the passenger for non-compliance. Just know this: Had the passenger complied, we would not be talking about it; plus, a boycott would be good but not sufficient. What we need is to communicate to airlines that we are not going to take this anymore. What happened to our country? Have we become so unempathetic that unless it happens to us, directly, it does not matter?

There was a time when we were the envy of the world in customer service. Around the world, businesses of all stripes wanted to emulate the American model where customers were made to feel like the critical ingredient to an enterprise profitability. That is gone now.

Airlines, in general, cater to “business travelers” who pay the bulk of available fares. These select passengers are members of the various miles programs and may never suffer the indignity of being de-boarded. Meanwhile, there is the rest of us, who make sacrifices (a fare between NYC and Los Angeles is equal to one’s monthly income) when traveling. Obviously, the last thing we want is more drama on top of the financial burden. It seems airlines and particularly United have forgotten this. However, United and other airlines are not to blame. We gave up our rights by chasing some shiny objects while they were slowly chipping away at our rights.

As passengers, the only thing we have left is to vote with our dollars and start to demand that the airlines treat us the way we want to be treated. We demand respect, consideration and above all keep our dignity as human beings. Some airlines have shown success in this area, and frankly, these companies are worthy of our selection for travel. I am grateful that the passenger on United did sustain life-threatening injuries (so far as we know) and thank God the police did not go crazy calling in additional resources to charge him with disrupting flight operations. Bottom line, only we, the passengers, the “real bosses of them” can stop this stupidity. Unite.


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