By Andy Yemma
When did air travel in this country finally hit rock bottom? Maybe this week, with the United Airlines “re-accommodation” fiasco.
The viral videos of a paying passenger being dragged from his seat by police in order to make room for a United employee generated outrage at the airline from every corner.
From the passenger accounts and videos it appeared that virtually everyone in authority — from the gate agents, to the airplane crew, to the airport police — acted like bullies or worse.
How did they feel empowered to do this? Look at the early statements by United’s CEO Oscar Munoz, who did everything he could to blame the victim and cover up the gravity of the incident before public opinion and a plummeting stock price forced him to apologize.
United and the other major carriers have spent the past decade slashing costs through bankruptcy restructurings, merging with other major carriers, laying off employees and squeezing passengers with extra fees for formerly free stuff — like checking bags, choosing seats — even not checking bags! They get away with this because they are virtual monopolies. Only three major carriers remain – United, American and Delta – and they could hardly be called competitors.
Companies that have real competition generally treat their customers with respect – after all their customers provide their revenue. Monopolies generally do the opposite – fostering employee cultures that frequently disrespect customers.
Anyone who has flown in coach in recent years knows this. From the moment you arrive at the airport departure curb there’s an indifferent vibe from the ticket agents to the gate agents, to the flight crews, to the baggage carousels – pray that your bag doesn’t get lost.
Recently my son and I were refused entry to our scheduled flight on American from JFK to Phoenix. Because of delays in the TSA area, we arrived at the gate eight minutes before our scheduled departure. But the gate agents (following procedure) had closed the gate 10 minutes before scheduled departure. No apologies for the inconvenience to us, the paying customers. No, we are told that we may not fly at all if we questioned why we could not board. The lack of customer courtesy was palpable.
So, hopefully, maybe, this fiasco with United may finally be a tipping point. Kudos to the passengers on that flight who objected to the bullying and brutality. Hats off to social media for making this viral. We are all that bloodied passenger who was dragged from the window seat!
Already politicians are reacting, calling for hearings and possible changes in the airlines’ overbooking-overselling policies. Let’s see how that goes.
By the way, the last guy anybody should listen to about any of this is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has jumped on the bandwagon to criticize United. Every rail passenger traveling through Penn Station in New York City in the past week has Christie to thank for the awful state of that infrastructure.