What’s Wrong With Our Airlines?

Every time you turn around, it seems like you are reading some disturbing new story about a poorly handled incident on an airline.  The latest is the story of a puppy that a United Airlines flight attendant forced into an overhead bin — where the puppy died.

united-airlinesThe incident happened on Monday, on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York.  The dog was in an approved pet carrier device when a flight attendant required the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier into an overhead bin.  The flight attendant now says she didn’t realize the dog was in the pet carrier.  Another passenger on the plane, however, says the dog’s owner resisted and told the flight attendant that there was a live dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant insisted and the dog’s owner eventually complied.  When the pet carrier was retrieved at the end of the flight, the dog was dead — perhaps from lack of oxygen.

United Airlines has apologized, and a statement from a spokesperson said:  “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

In this instance, perhaps the flight attendant was at the end of a long shift and at the end of her rope, or perhaps she was confused about whether there was a live animal in the pet carrier.  (Of course, why else would somebody take a pet carrier on a plane as a carry-on item?)  Whatever the cause, the story is extremely troubling, because it’s another example of airlines treating passengers like cattle.  We’ve seen incidents where ticketed passengers have been forcibly removed from planes, including one instance that raised such a ruckus that United’s CEO sent an email out to me and other United passengers that spoke of passengers being “treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect” and that the airline intended to try to live up to “higher expectations.”  I guess that effort still has a ways to go.

 

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My Email From United’s CEO

At 1:37:54 a.m. this morning, I got an email from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.  1:37 a.m.?  Geez, Mr. Munoz is one hardworking dude!

united-airlinesMr. Munoz sent me the email to apologize for the disturbing recent incident in which a ticketed passenger was dragged from a United flight leaving O’Hare in order to allow a United employee to take his seat.  Mr. Munoz says the treatment of the passenger broke United’s promise to not only “make sure you reach your destination safely and on time, but also that you will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.”  That’s a bit of an understatement, Mr. Munoz!  Something that doesn’t square with the “deepest sense of dignity and respect” would be, say, getting wedged into a seat next to a smelly, morbidly obese guy wearing a tank top who intrudes into your personal space.  Being left bloodied and semiconscious as you’re dragged from your seat doesn’t even square with the lowest level of service or the shallowest sense of dignity and respect.

But let’s not quibble about words.  Mr. Munoz thinks the incident happened because United’s “corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values” and “[o]ur procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”  He wants the incident to be a turning point for the company, so he’s changing United’s policies.  So now, United will “no longer ask law enforcement to remove customers from a flight and customers will not be required to give up their seat once on board – except in matters of safety or security.”   That seems like a pretty basic, but certainly appropriate, step.  United also will offer up to $10,000 to entice passengers to voluntarily rebook, and will implement a “new ‘no-questions-asked’ $1,500 reimbursement policy” for “permanently lost bags.”

Finally, Mr. Munoz wants me to know that United Airlines intends to live up to “higher expectations in the way we embody social responsibility and civic leadership everywhere we operate.”  The goal, he says, “should be nothing less than to make you truly proud to say, ‘I fly United.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever said that I was “proud” to fly any airline — or for that matter to own any particular brand of car, or to engage in any commercial transaction with a large company.  I found the United incident unsettling, but it wasn’t going to keep me from flying United.  Let’s face it, we’ve all seen weird incidents in which overzealous people have overreacted and made really bad choices, and when the United incident occurred I figured that United employees would, if anything, overcompensate in the opposite direction and do everything they could to try to fix the company’s PR nightmare.

Mr. Munoz’s early morning email suggests that that effort is still underway.

Getting “Bumped”

We’ve all been in this situation:  we’re at the gate, waiting for our plane, and the gate agent makes an announcement that the flight is overbooked and they’re looking for “volunteers” to take a later flight in exchange for a travel voucher.  If there are no immediate volunteers, the value of the voucher can go up . . . and up . . . and up.

But what if there are no volunteers, at any price?  I’ve never bitten on any of those offers because I would much rather get to where I’m going.  What if everyone on a particular flight took that approach?  I’ve always wondered about that scenario.

united-airlines-man-dragged-out-of-plane-253x189Now we’ve got an answer, of sorts.  On one overbooked United Airlines flight, from O’Hare Airport in Chicago to Louisville, an airport security officer physically assaulted a passenger who was in his seat on the plane and dragged him down the aisle and off the plane so United staff who needed to get to Louisville could take his seat.  Of course, other passengers had out their cell phones and took video footage of the encounter. The video is pretty shocking when you consider that the man who was mistreated was a ticketed passenger who had paid for the flight, checked in, and followed all of the rules.

United told passengers that four people needed to leave the flight and that it was selecting the people who needed to give up their seats to United staffers by random computer selection.  Three of the unlucky people apparently left voluntarily — but when the one passenger refused, he was forcibly removed.  One passenger said that the man had originally agreed to give up his seat, but rescinded his decision when he learned that the next available flight was not until the next day.

Of course, United officials and the Chicago Department of Aviation say that the actions of airport security were contrary to policy, and they’ve apologized.  United, meanwhile, is dealing with a PR nightmare.  How many people are going to think twice about choosing a United flight if, say, an American flight is available?  And for those of us who fly regularly, it’s an eye opener to think that you could be chosen randomly to give up that seat you reserve because an airline has decided that its staff needs to have that seat instead, and then mauled by airport police if you decline.

“Fly the friendly skies,” indeed!

Those Soul-Deadening Travel Delays

The flight from Columbus to Dulles left on time and arrived early.  It left me plenty of time to take the train over to C Concourse to catch my connecting flight.  I wanted to get an early start on my holiday, and specifically picked early flights so as to avoid any travel snags, so all was working according to plan.

IMG_4248The screen at the gate showed an on-time departure.  Sitting in C Concourse, I heard the United Airlines rep explain that we would be boarding in groups.  And, then, with no warning or explanation, disaster struck.  The flight, which was supposed to leave at 8 a.m., was delayed until 1 p.m. for “aircraft servicing.”  Huh?  How did the need for servicing come up so suddenly, and on an early morning flight?  Wasn’t the need for “servicing” apparent more than 30 minutes before departure?

So now I’m stuck in the Dulles C Concourse, experiencing all of the soul-deadening elements of an aging American airport — lame food selections, cheap naugahyde seats, bad music on the intercom, a couple changing their baby’s diaper two seats over, and an unreconstructed hippie woman strumming a guitar in the waiting area.  I guess I’m just lucky she didn’t say we should all join in for a “singalong thing,” or a number of us would have had to give in to the urging of our inner Bluto from Animal House.

How has Edward Snowden managed to do this for weeks now?  The only good thing about this delay is that it will make the vacation all the sweeter — if I ever get there.

The Dreaded 3:30 Call

It was about 3:30 a.m. when the first phone call came.  It jarred us awake from a deep sleep.  As usual when you get a call in the middle of the night, you immediately think it’s some kind of family emergency.  Fortunately, that wasn’t the case.

No, it was a robotic voice giving us the happy news that our flight plans had to be changed.  Half-asleep, my first reaction was:  Whuh?  The robot warmly advised that United had changed our booking so that we would fly to Columbus through Houston, and get in tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow morning?

By now fully awake, I thought:  Gee, thanks, United!  So I went to the united.com website and confirmed that, sure enough, the first leg of our trip back was cancelled.  Cancelled.  Such grim finality in that word.  Not like “Delayed,” where you retain a shred of hope that you might still be able to get through, somehow.  No, “Cancelled” is like the clanging shut of the cell door on your first night at Shawshank Prison.

Fortunately, we booked through American Express Travel, so I had a helpful live human being to call.  He looked at the situation, realized that there were non-United flights available, and came up with an alternative plan that is supposed to get us back tonight, although much later than originally planned.

So we went back to bed, slept fitfully, and now we’re off to the airport, hoping that further travel catastrophe doesn’t strike.  A day of potential travel hell awaits.