One of the recurring themes of this blog is “how companies, particularly those used to having control over their customers adapt/not to the new world of communications, the new world of technology that empowers the individual.”
Yes, you do know exactly where this is going.
My name is Sarah A. Hoyt, and I fly. I don’t fly often — anymore — and I don’t fly with much degree of enjoyment because I was always rather afraid of flying. (Afraid is not the right term. I hate not being in control.)
But there was a time I flew more and with greater enjoyment. This was around 99 to 2000 when for various reasons, we and the boys flew (tourism, mostly) about six times a year, return trips. (So, twelve times a year.)
I don’t know if you remember those days? You checked your luggage in, the planes were on time more often than not. If not on time, they tried to compensate and be nice to you.
Unfortunately 9/11 changed that. But I think the change was deeper than we think. It wasn’t just that the airlines, suddenly faced with multiple delays and fewer passengers took the exactly wrong tactic to make themselves profitable again: charge for ALL the things, make the seats so small that when someone reclines, they’re in the lap of the people behind, etc. No. It was that this change was aided, abetted, directed by an authoritarian type of mentality.
I can’t prove it, but I think part of it was all the bail outs from government to the airlines. The other part was that well… the entire flying experience became more authoritarian. You have to submit to being checked from head to toe to even get aboard (and yet, as usual, I flew with both liquids and blades I didn’t know I was carrying last week. It’s kabuki.)
Along with this came the airlines ability to remove/accuse of interference or threats or terrorism anyone who argues too loudly with any of its employees. We’ve all heard stories of people removed/locked up/etc simply because they wouldn’t or couldn’t obey instructions.
I remember the woman handcuffed to the airport bench who died through lack of meds, the same lack that was causing her to act psychotic.
I think the ability to get away with mistreating passengers (and call the police on passengers if they complain) and getting away with some egregious abuses that people tolerate because “well, who knows, next time it could be a threat” has corrupted airline culture.
I think what happened to the United Passenger was not only predictable, but inevitable. Once airlines get used to the idea that you’re “cattle” to be herded and told what to do, arbitrarily, and that if you refuse to pay for extras you’re negligible, you have set up the conditions in which a passenger, sooner or later will get abused and the abuse will get filmed.
As with publishing, we have an industry that has a monopoly and is told by the government it is “vital” and given subsidies to prove it. (Well, publishing hasn’t been, I think, but you get the point.)
Because the employees have full authority and can back it up by accusing their passengers of terrorism/denying them boarding/creating trouble, they’ve got into this mentality where the passenger is NOT their customer, but simply widgets to be moved around, ordered about and treated, generally, like things of no account.
Which explains why our airline travel is rapidly coming to mimic the qualities of Soviet travel in its hey day.
I rarely fly these days. In the last 9 years, we’ve retrenched our financial position so often we’re now out of trenchers. Also, frankly, I hate flying these days. You have to get there an hour and a half ahead of time, and half the time the flight will be changed/delayed/strange. The strange part usually involves distributing my family around the airplane like a kid’s thrown marbles, seemingly for fun. (Like last week, when Dan and I were separated and another couple were equally separated for no reason either of us could figure out. — we traded.) This is a problem for me, because I have severe mid-range deafness. Yes, at a noisy con, if I smile and nod when you tell me that you just grilled your neighbor with garlic, it’s because I have no idea what you said. So, in a noisy plane? I have no idea what the attendants are telling me at any given time. I have no idea what the announcements are. Usually I look at Dan/Robert/Marshall and they translate. And yes, there have been one or two situations in which flight attendants thought I was being obtuse on purpose, but fortunately not escalating to violence, as I rarely travel alone.
So, it’s not a pleasurable experience. The reasons I do it these days are to attend cons; to accompany Dan on a business trip; to see our aging/ailing relatives (yes, we know eventually we’ll arrive too late. We’re too far away. But we try.
And every time I travel, the flight is overbooked and they ask for volunteers. Sometimes I’m really tempted, because, say, a voucher for 1k would pay a trip to see my parents. BUT what good does it do me to arrive, say, at Liberty con on Sunday, then turn around and come back.
I swear until yesterday I did not know you could get INVOLUNTARILY bumped, and the idea fills me with dread. The reasons I travel, I’ll still have to travel, but it has the potential of nullifying the entire reason I am even there.
For now, everyone who is reporting on the UAL incident is saying the “doctor involved” has a shady past. This is TO AN EXTENT TRUE. Kind of. He had some problems, some of them apparently resulting from PTSD (his treatment at the hands of the airline must REALLY have helped that) that led him into shady behavior AFTER which he did everything in his power to clean up his act.
The interesting thing here is where the Louisville newspaper reporting on him found his name to do the background check. It wasn’t in early reports, and it was only in possession of the airline.
Did the airline give the name to the newspaper? I don’t know. I wish I could say it was unthinkable.
However, the behavior of various people coming out at the same time to defend United and to tarnish in any way the reputation of the man they were caught abusing, reminded me of the incident when I posted Frontiers of Insanity post.
This was a time when my blog got on a good day about 100 hits, but within hours of my putting up a post critical of Frontier, we had a bonafide Frontier apologist, casting aspersions on my character and acting like I was crazy and “entitled.” (BTW if you want a glimpse into how crazy and authoritarian airlines have got, that experience is a good example. And it’s not even the worst we’ve had. The absolute worst was 9? years ago when flying back from Chattanooga took us on a tour of the US, including overnight in Chicago and bringing us home too late to go through the mandatory parent interview to get #2 son into a dual college/high school program. Fortunately Older Son ably filled in for us, and we just had to go in and sign papers after.)
This same comment about being “entitled” was left by a United Employee on a post of mine on FB yesterday. He said I didn’t understand the trouble with trying to subdue a planeful of entitled and unruly people.
I don’t like the term “entitled.” It is too often used by people who think they have authority over you to tell you to fall in place. Yes, I know, you do get “entitled” people, who demand safe spaces and think life should be “fair” like an eternal kindergarten. But there are better terms for them, like “infantile” and “full of hubris.”
In the context of the airline, let’s dissect “entitled.” You’re d*mn right I’m entitled. When you pay for a service, you are entitled to that service. It is known as “contract”. And I don’t really care if the government says it’s legal for them to drop people involuntarily. The government is no arbiter of morals. The truth is that in any other industry, if I pay for something I’m ENTITLED to it. And if people revoke it after payment, it’s called fraud and there are all kinds of ugly consequences.
Just because the government thinks airlines are “essential” and enables ugly behavior, it doesn’t make it RIGHT.
Entitled? Damn right I’m entitled. When I pay for something, I bought it, and it’s mine, whether it’s a service or a physical thing. This is known as property rights, and — as such — is the cornerstone of the civilized society we used to be.
Again, I didn’t know until this week that airlines could just refuse boarding at will. I still need to fly, but the idea that it can be arbitrarily denied because of someone else’s priority or someone else’s fuck up does not make me love it more. I always assumed they just offered more and more money until SOMEONE took it.
Yeah, yeah, I know “overbooking is why flights are so cheap.” Is it? Is it really? I don’t know what the rate of missing/not being there for flights is. I’ve missed ONE flight in my entire life. It would seem to me that having passengers on standby would take care of that. SURELY if you’re actually compensating people for giving up their seats — and playing fair with compensation. I’ve heard rumors United Airlines vouchers are useless — it costs you more than one or two empty seats.
The only time another … ah… company denied me the right to a service I paid for, it was the post office, who told me I couldn’t have the mailbox where the previous owners had had it, under the porch, but must have it down seventeen steps, at street level, because their UNION didn’t want them to have to climb that many steps.
In both cases, both institutions were heavily subsidized and protected by government. In both cases, service is/was lousy. In both cases the person being served wasn’t viewed as the CUSTOMER or the person who actually kept them in business.
I fully expect airlines to say that passengers must “build in” days to their travel, to insure they get there in time. I mean, the post office told me — when I pointed out having the box on the street, in a street with pedestrian traffic was asking for theft — that I should have anything important and certainly not checks sent to me. (Which explains why they’re increasingly Spam Mail.)
What I say is that if I need to build in hotels for an extra night at each end, then their flights must be WAY cheaper.
In the end this is the problem with the game of authoritanism and subtraction of services the airlines play. Sooner or later, you’ve subtracted everything, and frankly Greyhound starts sounding good.
And then, perhaps, government decides you’re not essential anymore and stops subsidizing you. Or you have to learn to subsist on package-carrying only. OR — and it’s already happening — an airline that actually believes their customers are their customers and deserve to be treated as human beings comes into being and sends you into bankruptcy.
What I know is that right now, where we are, United COMPLETELY misunderstands their position. From their half-hearted excuses, to the letter their CEO sent to employees telling them they had done nothing wrong and the passenger was a poopy head, they completely fail to understand that the public in whose court of opinion they’re being tried are those same widgets they’ve been pushing around and mistreating for YEARS.
Frankly, just in terms of how closely packed together we were last week, I have enough of a hate-in for them to last me for years.
United has been very close to my “no, not even if it’s half the price” list. Now they’re firmly on it. I’m sure I’m not alone.
And that in the end is what happens when you forget who actually PAYS you and who you’re SUPPOSED to serve. At some point, you subtract enough — like, assuring them you’ll actually transport them for money — that you find you no longer have customers.
It’s a great way to go out of business. And all for lack of understanding that they’re selling SOMETHING and not in charge of ordering people around to suit the airline’s convenience.
NO ONE is entitled to your business. NO ONE is entitled to play bait and switch with you. And companies who think they are and can will eventually be “rewarded” with disappearance. It might take some time, but it’s inevitable.
The way to stay in business is to offer what your customers want and to be nice to them while providing it.
An idea so crazy it might just work out.