The story about the doctor who was dragged from a United flight from Chicago to St. Louis on Sunday just won’t quit in my mind and now that I”ve seen the videos displaying his bloody face from being dragged from his seat and having his mouth hit the metal armrest and the indignity of being dragged by his arms down the aisle with his bare stomach exposed and his eyeglasses hanging on his face between his nose and upper lip with passengers screaming and hurling instructions to the security people to stop this maltreatment but helpless to do anything to help him lest they risk getting clopped in the chops as well. . . as a person who has invested much of her adult life to the sale and marketing of travel and tourism suppliers and destinations. . . I’m just sick to my stomach!
There are so many layers to this horrendous story but let me see if I can simplify it to try to give some understanding to those of you who never want to fly again for fear that that man’s experience could be your experience.
1. What we saw in that video is not normal! The flight crew could have handled this so much better in so many ways. There was a time when United was the number one choice by so many US and International passengers and I was among them! Something happened in the culture at that airline many years ago and you could see the drizzling down of what was once a very caring airline proud of its Friendly Skies approach. I can tell you that the people at Continental, who were just an amazing bunch from check-in to lounges to flight crews and who were happy, upbeat, accommodating whether you were on short trips or long-haul flights halfway around the world. If you had gone New Jersey’s Newark (Liberty) Airport shortly after the merger of United and Continental, you would have met the most demoralized, unhappy, depressed lot of ex-Continental/now-United Airlines employees who felt unimportant, unwanted, unloved and unappreciated. Morale couldn’t have been lower and I’m not convinced it ever bounced back. Sad because United was once a prototype of excellence on the ground and in the air. And somebody’s not paying attention as is evidenced in this article about a United pilot’s meltdown reported on February 12, 2017! Have a look: http://liveandletsfly.boardingarea.com/2017/02/12/united-pilot-removed-odd-onboard-rant/
If that’s not enough for you, how about the fracas reported on February 19, 2013, when a passenger on United Airlines was removed for taking a picture of his Business First seating area when he was seated in the Business First section of what once was a Continental plane which became part of United’s fleet after that merger:
What happened to the doctor on Sunday’s United flight was unconscionable but is the result of the shift from many airlines’ flight crews seeing themselves evolve from air hosts projecting the image of the airline’s brand as members of the travel and hospitality sectors of the industry to safety providers there to serve passengers in an emergency who just happen to be stuck with the tasks associated with food and drink service.
The techniques imposed by the airline and the security crew that was summoned, especially after seeing the film, “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” this past weekend, were reminiscent of the tactics used by Nazi forces pre- and during World War II. (That’s a MUST SEE film, people!). Good Lord! They were dealing with a man sitting quality on a plane in a confirmed seat whose sole purpose was to get safely home to St. Louis! While many people may have had a less compelling reason to get home on Sunday night, this gentleman had patients expecting him to be on call on Monday morning! Regardless, where in the mission statement of United Airlines is the line devoted to roughing up passengers.
2. The overriding and underlying problem here is that, in actuality, the seats in the airline belong to the airline. Passengers are only renting the seat for a period of time. Passenger tickets, even confirmed space tickets with seat assignments, have varying degrees of priority status. A full-fare ticket with confirmed seat is at the highest level. . . but that doesn’t mean you can’t be bumped from the flight. Generally, a person flying on frequent flyer miles will be among the first to go right after any travel industry professionals who are flying on reduced-rate or so-called ‘free’ tickets. While free tickets, free of ticket cost, free of taxes and free of fees, are rare, they do exist. In theory, a positive space “status OK” ticket can still be subject to being denied boarding. This situation was made worse by having boarded the passenger and then removing the passenger by force. Horrifying!
3. The airline could have upped the offer of the amount of the cash payment to get someone to volunteer to get off the plane. At some point within allowable limits, someone would have caved and gotten off to get the jackpot. Done right, you can negotiate with the airline to get the money AND a FIRST CLASS ticket to fly home on the first available flight the next day. Years ago, I got the refrigerator I wanted because my husband volunteered to fly home the next day. He had a first class ticket and my recollection was that they paid double the ticket cost plus another first class ticket to get to JFK from Shreveport, Louisiana! I was thrilled when he called and said he’d be home the next day with a present from Delta because he volunteered to be bumped! And, if you need to overnight because you are getting bumped, be sure you get a voucher for dinner, breakfast.. . if you’re not on a breakfast flight. . . and a hotel overnight at an airport hotel. But there is no question that this is a teachable moment for United and any other airline that has concerns that that PR nightmare on United’s Chicago flight should not happen anywhere else!
The latest report is that the airline needed to clear 4 seats to replace passengers with flight crew heading for STL airport to work a flight from there. The passengers were offered a $1000 for each one who got off the flight. Flight crews are authorized to go up to $1300 per person. If that doctor HAD TO BE on call on Monday, he wouldn’t have taken the money even if it was $1300 as he had to be back for his patients. But I can tell you for sure that there were others on that flight that would have gotten off for $700 or $1000 or certainly for $1300 as that’s just how it is! And it appears that passengers were only told that $100 compensation was being offered and didn’t mention a hotel to overnight in and dinner and breakfast and maybe even first class seats the next day! With the airline so in the black. . . and probably never having removed the fuel surcharge from the cost of tickets (I’d check that one out!) that was imposed when fuel was $140 a barrel or something crazy like that and therefore their profits are soaring now that fuel is less than half of that amount, a bit of their profits could have diverted a billion dollars worth of horrid press! Can you only imagine how much the settlement to this doctor is going to be?? So many high up executives and staff down-line can work tirelessly, passionate, and with all their good intentions have one person make the wrong decision at the customer level and they can bring down the whole house in less than 5 minutes. Some serious training is in order here. Do you need as many flight attendants if you’re flying close to empty? One passenger on that flight who has a return ticket on United was on CNN in the wee hours this morning commenting that he’s in the midst of exchanging that ticket for a flight on another airline. Not good for business at United, people. Crew: Are you listening?
4. Because of all the rules put into effect after 9/11 that expand the authority of airport and on-board personnel, the last thing you want to do is mouth-off to an airline employee as they will have you arrested and then they’ll get mean! The doctor on the flight kept his composure but did not comply with the requests and you see how that ended! I had a neighbor who was a teenager in Mussolini’s Italy who said to me every chance she could, “Stephanie, guard your liberties!” We have seen far too many intrusions on our liberties including free speech and if you express unhappiness about your seat or anything else on a plane you may risk the ire of some crew person so be happy, read a magazine, watch a movie and keep your opinions noted somewhere to share with the company after you are safely on the ground.
5. There is no question that airlines, like people, have personalities and it all starts at the top. See the film, “Only You,” with Robert Downey, Jr. and Marissa Tomei. At the start of the film, she is trying to get to Rome with TWA, carrying a huge wedding gown over her arm but the door to the plane is closed and TWA won’t let her board, although she is crying and begging with ticket in hand, and they call security guards to take her away from the gate area. At the end of the film, again she needs to get on a flight from Rome to Baltimore and the door to the plane is closed and the plane is ready for take-0ff. This time it’s an Alitalia flight and when the ground crew alerts the pilot that the person Marissa Tomei’s character loves is on the plane and she must board, everyone smiles, the gateway is opened, and she boards the plane while all of the Italians rejoice because who cannot be happy when the story is about ‘Amore!” And if you want to fly with warmhearted people with a sense of humor who go out of their way to keep passengers happy and treat everyone well. . .actually, it’s referred to as, “You’ll be well looked after” . . . fly with Aer Lingus!
6. For many years now, the only domestic airline I fly with is JetBlue. They do an excellent job of customer care and customer service with attention to ease and comfort and all those things you want when you travel served by ground staff and air crew that smile, are friendly and actually seem to care about passengers while enjoying their work! Imagine! And that’s why, the last time I went to Milwaukee for Irish Fest and Midwest Airlines fleet of 2-across planes where every passenger felt like they were in First Class even though the whole plane was coach had been absorbed into another airline that let that concept die, we flew with JetBlue to Chicago, rented a car and drove the 80 miles to Milwaukee because JetBlue didn’t fly to Milwaukee! I was so happy we didn’t have to drive father but if JetBlue’s closest city was 500 miles away we would have taken the drive to avoid taking another domestic airline! Know why? I like to be treated well when I travel and I can count on them to deliver on that concept! I’ve flown all over the US contiguous states, Hawaii and Caribbean with JetBlue because I like me and I haven’t done anything I need to punish myself for!
JetBlue has an agreement with Aer Lingus and if you don’t live in one of the very many cities where you can fly to Ireland and beyone with Aer Lingus, you can check your luggage in your local city for your JetBlue flight and you won’t have to worry about picking up your bags until you are on the other side of the Atlantic making a smooth connection from JetBlue to Aer Lingus and flying with Aer Lingus beyond Dublin to many European destinations! What I’m telling you is that you can find sharp fares that won’t break the bank and not give up being treated like a VIP even when you choose to fly in Economy Class! But if you can afford to fly in Business Class or any upper class of service, treat yourself! It is so worth it! Although, I must say, I love the premium seating available on Aer Lingus where the seats are a bit wider and the space between rows gives you more legroom and you have priority boarding to get on board and settled in before economy class passengers and the difference in price between these seats and the rest of the plane’s seats is minimal. . .and worth it!
As horrendous as this United story is, I’m so glad it’s not worse because some over-zealous security person might have tasered this man because he didn’t just get up and leave his seat. Worse yet, I’m guessing he has some martial arts skills like karate, or jujitsu or kong fu, and if his marital arts training had automatically kicked in and he gave one of the security guards a karate chop, I’d hate to think of what would have happened next. Clearly, the gentleman, who was quietly sitting in his seat awaiting his flight home was turned into a traumatized individual in need of therapeutic attention for a professional in the mental health industry. The poor man! Who knows what past trauma in his life was brought clearly to the forefront that sent him into the tailspin of traumatized behavior that he exhibited immediately after being dragged through the plane.
Lastly, I can only hope that the CEO of United makes a better effort to apologize for the unforeseen behavior of those in charge on that plane because, while he clearly doesn’t want to validate the passenger’s lack of compliance with requests to vacate his seat, a lack of an apology projects the idea that United isn’t concerned about the experience of that doctor AND the experience of passengers, including children, who were on that flight and who had to be thinking, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.” If that treatment can be doled out to the fellow across the aisle who is breaking no laws and creating no disturbance, logic would dictate that you or I could be next.
Will this stop me from flying? Not at all. But I will continue to exercise my sense of brand loyalty by choosing to fly with those airlines that have consistently remembered that without passengers there is no business and to keep customers coming back because of great service, the airline must continue to provide great service. Changing brands, like changing sox, whether for airlines or hotels, because of some perceived economic savings which may be minimal and, in actuality, may not be a savings at all given specific services that a “favorite brand” provides and if it did cost a bit more to fly with an airline you have confidence in to do the job well, wouldn’t that just be worth it? Find the brands you love, as I have, and stick with them!
This whole story has worn me out.
I’ll be talking about this story on the air so be sure to check podcasts at travelers411.com and archived audio of shows once they have broadcast coast to coast at sAbrams.com along with show notes and links to the websites of our guests.
Also, be sure to check our Directory features at travelers411.com where every guest we interview on radio is featured . . . well worth a look!
It’s now almost 6amET and I have a busy day and so wound up from this awful story that I’m hoping I can calm down enough to go to sleep to meet a busy day head-on! My big concern is that you focus on voting for companies that you like with your dollars and continue to travel and don’t vote for those you are concerned may not have your best interests to heart. Know the rules. Follow the rules and live to talk about it! Stephanie Abrams Travel Fairy Godmother has your on her mind always! Do it right and Travel Richly!
Your Personal Travel Guru,