Don’t Rush to Judge United Airlines

  • April 17, 2017

The recent controversy regarding United Airlines, the Chicago police, and a recalcitrant passenger highlight the vulnerability of companies to social media.

I am not defending or condemning United Airlines’ actions. I am a long-time flier with the company, and I have found their service representatives to be consistently helpful. I have qualms about their MileagePlus Program and other policies, but those are topics for another day. To be sure, their corporate leaders don’t appear to distinguish between smart profit-maximization and needlessly antagonistic profit-maximization. Perhaps their leaders rely solely upon data in making their decision without thinking about how their patrons will react.

Readers, no doubt, have watched the video of Dr. Dao being forcibly removed from the United flight by Chicago police officers. Surrounding passengers took video footage with their phones and posted them. There was a stampede to condemn United Airlines, and people expressed outrage.

Passengers taking video footage and posting them rarely provide context; they are not trained journalists in most cases. Was the passenger unruly beforehand? How did the United employees behave (after all, they did not forcibly drag Dr. Dao off the plane)? Having lived in Chicago for twenty-one years, I know that if Chicago police officers tell you to do something, you do it (later you can always find a lawyer to claim that your rights were violated). What are the rules? I’ve heard various details, including that the passenger had been escorted off the plane and then returned; if true, that is a major violation of security. People have posted differing interpretations of the “overbooking” rules.

People have made United Airlines the butt of some amusing and some puerile humor. We can all recall some incidence of corporate insensitivity, but my guess is that when placed in context, corporate behavior is often reasonable.

In the hours after the incident, there probably weren’t sufficient facts and context to really know who was at fault. Certainly it is difficult to understand how the situation ended up with Dr. Dao injured, passengers delayed, and the airline facing a huge public relations fiasco.

In the wake of this incident, many people posted rather inane comments. It is simplistic to blame capitalism or to accuse people of being greedy. Corporations are trying to maximize profits; their shareholders expect this. You should expect this; as long as they don’t violate laws, businesses should try to maximize profits. Consumers face similar motivations and try to maximize the use of their scarce dollars. Consumers want rock-bottom prices, good service, and comfort.

Airlines face uncertainty with every flight. How many passengers will actually show up for the flight? No-shows injure the airlines and potential passengers, who wanted to take that flight but found it booked. The stand-by and voluntary “bump” systems are a good way to maximize both airline and customer welfare. The number of people involuntarily bumped is a small proportion, although one could argue it is too high. Airlines do have varying cancellation rules, but I suspect neither the airlines nor passengers would prefer a system where no-shows automatically lose the value of their tickets. Passengers have legitimate reasons for changing their travel plans, and a system with flexibility benefits them and the airlines.

I have volunteered and been bumped many times in my thirty-odd years of flying. For me, it is a good deal. I was shocked to hear reports that in this case United upped its offer to $800; normally the maximum is $500 for domestic flights. Some pundits claim United should have observed “supply and demand” and continued to up its offer, but I suspect the airline does not look at these situations in isolation. If they raise the price to “clear” the market for a particular flight, volunteers might demand greater compensation for future flights.

All of us are bombarded with news. Many of us have simple rules for interpreting stories. Too many of us make quick judgments on the basis of a few seconds of video. We might be wise to delay making a judgment, as there seems to be an inertia involved once a judgment is made. Once I pass judgment, I am loath to change my mind. Better to wait a few days to decide. Of course, we might even ask ourselves, “Do I need to make a judgment?”

The hope is that by behaving ethically, businesses can avoid most publicity debacles. Sometimes, though, even ethical businesses face public relations disasters. People think large corporations have tremendous power, but large corporations also have tremendous vulnerability. Consumers can punish businesses quickly and harshly.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.



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