United Airlines, an excuse that doesn’t fly


The Hill Times (April 17, 2017)

The video of the United Airlines passenger violently evicted from a plane has brought to our attention a couple of things: the power of modern technology and the problem of overbooking.

There is nothing new about either, just like high speeds and the possibility of a car accident. But when reality hits you with a crush, you are forced, at least for a while, to stop and think.

The condemnation of United Airlines is unavoidable. You don’t overbook a flight, let a passenger take a seat on the plane, and then you evict him only counting on his discretion to not be exposed in a cowardly fashion.

The condemnation becomes more appropriate after the ill-advised statement of United chief executive Oscar Munoz, who wrote to his employees that “while I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you.

Behind who? Behind people that don’t know how to prepare the company’s schedule and want the customers to pay for it?

We must accept the reality that overbooking is here to stay. At the same time, we must be aware that our arrogance and incompetence can now be easily exposed, making us look like idiots. It is upon us to learn how to deal with both in a professional and civilized way.

Let’s start with the overbooking.

Airlines are dealing with increasing economic and technical difficulties because they are exposed to serious challenges from terrorism and a wobbling economy that makes it difficult to run any company. They must keep the price in check to face the competition and please, at the same time, investors and customers. We enjoy better prices but, in return, must be aware that we could be asked to delay our departure and, when possible, to accept alternative accommodations.

To accomplish that—to avoid the cost of flying planes with emptying seats, and for the passengers to enjoy cheaper flights—bilateral cooperation is required and reciprocal understanding.

The viral video hitting social media these days shows us the final stage of a dispute that went wrong for reasons difficult to assess but, nonetheless, clear enough to makes the company the main culprit.

We all know that passengers have been left stranded because of overbooking. Many of us have been involved in the mishap but never complained. In fact, we took advantage of the situation, receiving vouchers for future free rides.

This time, however, it didn’t work. Why? Because for the first time someone fought against this “abuse” so theatrically that it surprised people in charge of the airline, and, most importantly, because there is a video.

While customers should accept some risk because of the overbooking to keep fares low, airlines, too, should take some risk when they overbook.

First, the number of passengers overbooked should be very limited and decided according to statistics and the history of previous cancellations for the booked flights.

Second, if flights cancelled are not reimbursable, the airline loses no money and they could well take off with an empty but paid seat considered not-reimbursable.

Third, if they sell an already sold non-reimbursable but cancelled seat, they should reimburse some of the money to the original passenger.

Fourth, in case of a dispute, it should not be left in the hands of the company to decide who be left on the ground, but there should be precise rules or legislation.

Aside from the institutional and hypocritical indignation we express on Facebook, I hope that the video helps to solve the problem. But I am not optimistic.

Do we remember the dramatic picture of the little Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish background whose body was photographed on the shores of Mediterranean Sea? Many children died in the sea before Alan and hundreds are dying while writing this column, but nobody cared before and nobody cares now.

Of course, there is no comparison between a child’s dead body, whose parents were seeking a better life, and a man dragged away from a plane. But the concept is the same. If our conscience has been able to metabolize the dramatic picture of a little boy dead on a seashore and forget about it, how long will the image of that screaming passenger evicted from an airline stay with us?

Until the next posting.

Angelo Persichilli is a freelance journalist and a former citizenship judge for the Greater Toronto Area. He was also a director of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper and is former columnist for Toronto SUN, Toronto Star and former political editor of Corriere Canadese, Canada’s Italian-language newspaper in Toronto.

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