One (Critical) Consumer Contract Unprotectable by Law

As most people know by now, on Sunday April 9th a passenger was dragged from his seat on a United Airlines flight scheduled to fly from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Louisville, KY. The forcible removal of the man from the plane was recorded by other passengers and those videos have gone viral. The shock of seeing “one of us” — an ordinary passenger — dragged down the aisle by his arms, his face bloodied and his glasses being torn from his face was more than most sentient people could bear. One can hear the dismay of fellow passengers in the background of the videos. We hear the screams of the man and see his extreme trauma when he comes back on board. The videos raced through social media channels with the speed of wild fire. We are outraged. We are horrified. We wonder if it could be us one day. We are the tribe of passengers who side with the poor man and fellow passenger who was treated so very horribly. We feel violated by the violation he experienced. There is good reason for this feeling — beyond the purely heinous treatment of another human being. As consumers — in this case, of airline services — our contract with the “service provider” has been broken, violated, and trampled upon.

More on this contract in a moment. First let me point to Derek Thompson’s Atlantic Magazine breaking news post “The Deeper Scandal of that Brutal United Video.” In that very clear piece, Thompson quotes the United “contract of carriage:” “… If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority.” So this means the airline can deny a ticket holder the seat they assumed was theirs. The airline has a contract of carriage with us, the passengers. Should we want to fight the bad treatment we experience, Thompson points out that there have been court rulings that have made it difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to win any arbitration. Consumers are at the mercy of a legal system that is protecting large corporate entities.

We are mostly ignorant of this small print contract of carriage but there is another deeper contract that has been violated here and that has bonded us together in horror. So what, then, is this other contract that has been violated in the United Airlines act? I believe it is the psychological contract that we, as consumers, have with service providers. It goes like this: “if we pay the price of the goods, we will receive the service” (which, I realize is in conflict with the contract of carriage) and further “if we purchase a service and/or are loyal to our service provider, we will be treated with respect.” And there are even deeper implicit clauses in our contract with a service provider — those that assume human empathy, care, and fairness; clauses based deeply in the values we hold about how one should treat another.

The concept of psychological contracts, originated by Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College Professor Denise Rousseau, has usually referred to employer/employee mental models and assumptions related to the unwritten and unspoken “contract” between the two. I believe the concept of psychological contracts makes sense in the consumer/provider relationship as well. We are all shocked by the violation of the United passenger’s treatment — it is a universal shock (or nearly so). And the horror that we feel watching the video is both about any human being being treated this way and about our personal identification with that person. We are all the man on the plane being forcibly removed from the seat he paid for and violently dragged down the aisle of the plane.

United Airlines may be able to beat back law suits by settling out of court or dragging legal proceedings out using loopholes and corporate protections written in the law. But United Airlines will be unable to repair the rupture in the psychological contract we, as passengers, have with them. Or if it is to be repaired it will take a very long while and a very sensitive kind of communication beginning with taking responsibility and showing themselves to be aware of their faults in this act. Unfortunately, the initial communications coming from United’s CEO Oscar Munoz show no sign of such contrition nor awareness of the human issues in this instance. Instead, he and the airline are relying on empty corporate speak that only deepens the feeling of violation we feel. I wonder how United employees really feel reading his words. Would any of them have done something differently, said different words, apologized, taken responsibility? I want to believe they would. That they understand how humans should be treated — not as customer service tenets dictate but as basic human decency dictates. But to protect their jobs the people who would speak out feel they cannot. They are under contracts (legal and psychological).