By Robert McGarvey
United Airlines is winning applause in some quarters for a crew booking policy change – but I am baffled by the why.
Here’s the story. A few days ago TMZ published a document it said was an official United internal memo. The header said: Inflight Services Alert. It went onto say that, effective immediately, crew will be accommodated on oversold flights only up to 60 minutes before scheduled departure.
The memo explicitly said: “This is so the denied boarding process in an oversell situation may be implemented in a gate or lobby area and not on board the aircraft.”
Read that again. It is saying in effect to avoid another Dr. Dao, let’s be sure we bump ‘em at the gate and before their rears are on our seats in the plane.
And for this there is applause?
United, by the way, acknowledged to the New York Times that the document is legit. The Times reported: “We issued an updated policy to make sure crews traveling on our aircraft are booked at least 60 minutes prior to departure,” a spokeswoman, Maggie Schmerin, wrote in an email on Sunday. “This is one of our initial steps in a review of our policies.”
Let’s review where we are. You can be bumped up to 61 minutes before scheduled departure to seat a crew member and, really, other than cry and perhaps pocket a few dollars there is nothing you can do.
Even though the situation is entirely the fault of the airline. The passenger did nothing wrong. But the passenger suffers the consequences of wretched scheduling and capacity management and personnel distribution policies.
No wonder a Morning Consult poll has found that we are fleeing United. Reports Morning Consult: “People are so mad at United Airlines that almost 50 percent are willing to pay more money and even endure a layover to avoid flying with the company.”
New York Times reporting on the poll makes clear that for the moment United is paying a price for its mistreatment of Dr. Dao. Said the Times: “About 44 percent of respondents who said they had heard of United recently preferred to fly American even when the journey cost $66 more and took an additional three hours.”
Hold on, however. Do you really think similar could not have happened at American or Delta? Is there good reason to think United is markedly more incompetent and anti passenger than its legacy brethren?
A new DOT report in fact indicates that United is middling in the ranking of carriers and their involuntary boarding stats.
Are you feeling more loved and respected?
Do you see any significant differences among the legacy carriers? As long as I can recall I have had strong preferences – but mainly due to geography and which airline controlled my home airport. I don’t recall thinking there much difference among the US carriers.
The puzzlement is how an industry became so myopic – so indifferent to its customers – that it has thought it okay to tell people that, no, that ticket you thought was good for a flight isn’t much good for anything unless we tell you it is – and we are telling you it isn’t so sit down and shut up.
And if you do speak up, well, you may be dragged out of your seat, given a concussion, and maybe have your nose broken and a few teeth knocked out.
Can you picture any other business – except organized crime – that treats its customers this way?
As Brandeis professor Robert Kuttner noted in a recent New York Times piece, “The current business model used by the big airlines is not the only one consistent with reasonable profit and good service. It simply reflects the sheer arrogance that comes with monopoly power.”
Kuttner added: “Elsewhere in the travel industry — hotels and car rental agencies, for example — these abuses do not exist because there is actual competition. But airlines are simply not naturally competitive.”
In the past week there’s been a flurry of politicians calling for investigations into United and what will happen is that the airlines will make a few internal rules changes – like the United 60 minute doctrine – and we’ll forget about Dao. Things will go back to “normal” in the skies.
But the fundamental dysfunction and anti-passenger hostilities that have characterized the industry for at last 15 years will persist.
Unless we demand changes.
Changes that go way beyond this new United 60 minute rule.