Once upon a time, long long ago in what seems like a galaxy far far away I used to fly a lot in the friendly skies with United Airlines. In those halcyon far off days I could show up at the passenger terminal about 20 minutes before boarding time and be sure (in smallish airports at least) of being able to board the flight before it took off. I could check in a bag or two for free. I could expect a meal on longer flights to be included (not always a good one I admit, but food) and so on. I won’t say I had a wonderful time every flight because I didn’t, but I had a reasonable time and on the couple of occasions where I had to be bumped from a flight I got a hotel, a couple of hundred dollars and an upgrade to first class on the new flight.

Then 9/11 happened and the TSA and airlines decided to try and nickel and dime their customers back to profitability.

The result has been that, even though more people are flying, the experience is no longer particularly enjoyable and some airlines in particular have got a terrible reputation for customer service (or rather a lack of it). While Southwest, for example, still seems to believe in trying to make the flight enjoyable the “traditional” airlines mostly don’t and now there’s the United Airlines “volunteering” a seated customer to be kicked off a flight. I personally haven’t flown on United since 9/11 and a large reason for that is that friends told me the airline’s service sucked – this includes a friend who had achieved zillion miler god status on both United and Continental before the merger. I have flown most of the others and in my opinion Southwest sucked the least.

I don’t know if United’s personnel at the gate and on the plane were legally correct with forcibly ejecting a customer who had paid for his seat and didn’t want to relinquish it, but as everyone on the internet has noted in the court of public opinion they have been found guilty.

I think people do get the basic idea of overbooking but the fact that in this case United was throwing passengers who had already boarded off to replace them with United employees makes the whole mess so much worse.

I suspect a large part of the reason why many people have such little sympathy for United is that they haven’t enjoyed flying on United for years and they can so easily imagine the same thing happening to them with the same apparent lack of sympathy, empathy or any emotion at all beyond irritation that the cattle are being uppity. It reminds one of the tender care and dedication to customer satisfaction exhibited by government bureaucrats

Yes, the customer may (as various United defenders have claimed) been an asshole, entitled, egotistical doctor but the options he was presented with were not enticing. Indeed for a highly paid professional the $800 compensation offered for a day stuck in Chicago (whether or not hotel and meals are included) is somewhat of a joke. That Doctor almost certainly bills (or his hospital bills him out) at several hundred dollars an hour so $800 is less than a day’s gross income. Had the airline offered to book the bumped passengers on a flight with another airline that got in later – and there’s no way that there is just one flight to get from Chicago to Louisville per day – I suspect they could have got away with offering minimal monetary compensation.

I’m told that United insists that it’s employees go strictly by the book and this is probably the problem: the book doesn’t allow for innovative ideas like booking on a competing airline or offering more than $800 per passenger. At the Federalist it is noted that Delta paid a family thousands of dollars to not fly when they were in a similar situation. This, in part, appears to be because Delta (and Southwest for that matter) allow their gate agents and other employees considerable freedom of choice about what to do. As a result the agents can actually try satisfying the customer as well as meeting the operational demands of the airline. Such freedom, however, requires a degree of trust and mutual respect that is clearly missing at United and it seems likely that this lack of trust and respect is going to eventually doom the airline because in most cases the statement “we know you have a choice in air travel” is true and the airline whose employees treat their customers poorly and whose management treats their employees poorly is going to be the one that people choose not to use unless they really really have to.

BTW the various tweets by United’s CEO seem to show precisely the lack of customer focus that I note above. No doubt PR agencies and lawyers are busily trying to get the initial reactions memory-holed or airbrushed away and undoubtedly the CEO and various other United management will do their best to apologize in as sincere-appearing way as possible. However, just as with politicians trying to weasel their way back from infelicitous statements, this is likely to have mixed success unless there is clear evidence of a change of attitude. If not most observers will simple see any apology or settlement as United showing regret at getting caught rather than remorse at doing wrong.