Opinion: Page (1) of 1 - 04/12/17

United Airlines Fiasco

It Was Inevitable In Post 9-11 America: A Negotiator Explains

By Steven Riznyk, CEO of San Diego Biz


The fiasco that happened with United Airlines was imminent. Some airline had to get it, and United Airlines did. It couldn't have happened in a worse way for them, but it is reflective of today's hostile travel environment and hopefully it will signal a change for better times ahead. After all, passengers are customers, not an annoyance. 

The airline travel industry, with a few notable exceptions, such as Southwest Airlines, has begun treating passengers as people to be tolerated and not like their livelihood. In today's climate, you feel lucky if you receive friendly service, you do not accept it as a given. The airlines don't seem to have made customer service a priority. Their staff are poorly trained, if at all, in keeping passengers happy and appreciating their business. At the same time, airlines complain their stocks languish and they are not doing well financially. The days that an airline could create a loyalty program (miles) and expect people to return to them, regardless of how they are treated, are slowly disappearing. People will pay more for service, it's that simple. 



It is not uncommon now, if you have a complaint at the gate to be threatened with not being able to board or threatened to be escorted by security. Air Canada is comfortable with this. In fact, when the public coins a term for an airline that sticks, such as the one for Air Canada: "We're Not Happy Until You're Not Happy," it should speak volumes for the industry. 

The airline industry has taken the perceived power they have received as a result of the 9-11 adjustments and used it as a method of intimidating passengers when they prefer not to take the time to help them. As a result, customer service has been removed from their list of priorities and now passengers feel lucky when they encounter a friendly employee, they no longer come to expect it.

Part of the problem is that airlines have embraced a policy that they are looking out for our safety, and in the name of that safety they exercise power and control over people rather than help them. This is the 'third person justification' at play. For example: "these are the rules, I would like to help you, but I can't." Now, everything is in the name of safety. They make things up as they go along and if you question anything they threaten you with removal from their aircraft.  Airlines have observed that they can get away with almost anything in the name of safety and it has become the new buzzword for controlling passengers; treating them nicely is optional. 

The control that airlines have exercised over passengers, and this United example is  reminiscent of the Stanford Prison Experiment (SFE) which took place August 14th to 20th 1971; it was very telling of human nature. Students were chosen to be guards or prisoners in an experiment that had to be ended early due to the severe degradation caused by 'guards' on their fellow classmates who were the 'prisoners'. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that people, even without a predisposition to certain behaviors (i.e. bullying), will take on a role if they are in a situation that offers power.  They will not only internalize that role, but with cognitive dissonance, justify their behavior. The low-level staff at United made a billion-dollar decision (almost what their stock lost overnight) to forcibly remove a passenger who paid full fare. They knew they would have no repercussions: a perfect scenario for abuse of power, or at least for not thinking a decision through.  The passenger's discomfort was not the least of the United employee's concerns, it was not a concern at all.   

The police officers, equally cold-blooded, felt it was their job to remove the person, regardless of how degrading they had to be. Neither United employees nor police officers considered how they would have reacted if it was their parent who was removed. Empathy and discretion played no part: they needed to remove this passenger no matter what. An intellectual discussion or perhaps an offer of credits towards future flights did not enter the equation.  This was an example of human nature at work. When people have power and no consequences, they will act on impulse; doing what is right is optional. We have seen this time and time again on television with police actions. Regrettably, we have seen this with police officer and TSA officials, as well as immigration officers. Now, airlines are taking on the role, because they know they can. 

United employees had the power and no consequences, so they acted without thinking through consequences to the airlines; their thinking pattern would only address consequences to themselves. Additionally, United chose to waste police resources, rather than have this dealt with diplomatically by a high-level staff member empowered with discretion to make adjustments to help passengers. By using the police, they knew that they would not be responsible for the police actions. If the passenger objected, he would be arrested and that would be the end of story. 


United Airlines had many options. They could have offered the legal compensation limit (which they didn't) or more to the passenger, but this was a cheaper and faster way. United could have offered more to other passengers, or they could have put their own person on another airline. The actions United chose embarrassed America and added to our already challenged reputation. 

Our country has become one that has been regarded worldwide as one that is power hungry, threatening, and lacking diplomacy. These sentiments have been reinforced by an airline of all things. It's a sad day for our lovely America. What made America so hostile? What happened to our friendly culture that made it fun to be American, to be friendly with your neighbors, to be a community? Have our fears taken over?  Something happened and it is hurting us on a global basis. 

Let's examine some of the underlying issues and how this could have been better handled:
  1. The core of the problem is that four of United's people had to get to another destination to avoid cancellation of their upcoming flight. Money was the issue. If they had to drag a paying passenger across the floor they would do it because their contract allowed them to. Offering people more money or frequent flier miles to find a willing volunteer would have worked. However, they chose not to. 
  2. Most passengers are not aware that if they purchase a ticket on a plane it does not guarantee a seat; it seems we now know we can be forcibly removed. Passengers have their own lives and obligations.  Some airlines really don't care and don't realize that in their industry these are concerns they must address. 
  3. The airline is being greedy because it is being paid twice for seats if it is selling them and then selling them again at the expense of a paying passenger. One would think that this formula must be well-calculated and works most of the time. For the few times it doesn't, one would think the passenger should be provided royal treatment, not be dragged out by police. 
  4. Passengers will start flying the next international airline that will guarantee they don't use this tactic; let's see which is smart enough to advertise this first.
  5. United's staff lacked the common sense and empathy to realize the damage they would cause by having a passenger dragged off an airplane; what if it happened to their family member, would that be fine with them? They have the power and no consequences, so why not.  
  6. Many airlines seem to have the attitude that one passenger here or there who has been severely put out is not a problem, as there are few airline choices available.  Well, that next person dragged off the plane could be a CEO responsible for the flights of 20,000 people. 
  7. Airline personnel have been granted broad discretionary powers and can have people arrested at a whim, using the same defense police officers routinely use: obstruction, or one of its variants.
  8. The United personnel who made the decision to call security did not have the sense to realize how this would affect the other passengers (let alone the country or other countries). In China, the equivalent of Twitter brought in 100 million views regarding the topic. Is United telling us they cannot afford or cannot find smart people? Or is it simply that United doesn't care. It seems more consistent with the CEO's position (we should make it more confortable for the other passenger...please look out the window while we drag this paying customer across your floor)
  9. America has a reputation of using force rather than discussion (ie stories about police, TSA, immigration officers, airport issues, etc) , which has hurt our international image. A low-level person with no understanding of consequences at United only reinforced that perception. America needs to be seen as what it is, a wonderful country. Private enterprise should not tar our image, we already have enough enemies, we don't need more. Regrettably, the front-line people that foreigners meet when they enter the United States, be they immigration officers or flight attendants, create a branded impression of America for that person's first experience. Many have no idea how important their position is. Sadly, most organizations place their lower level people on their front lines, how ironic. 
  10. The police officers did not use common sense. Just because one has the ability to use force and power does not mean that it should be used, especially in such a dehumanizing manner. They were removing a paying passenger, not a criminal. Their behavior was typical of a police officer untrained to deal with customer service issues. United Airlines should either hire its own thugs, if that is how it likes to handle things, or train airport police. They cannot use airport police, accustomed to arresting criminals, to deal with customer service issues. It seems the airlines have all the power and the public is 100% at their mercy. They can have someone thrown in jail for a simple question they don't like and there is nothing the public can do about it. 
  11. The CEO, Oscar Munoz, apologized "for having to re-accommodate customers". Appalling. There was no concern over the passenger who was treated that way.  Interesting a CEO is no better at customer service than his low-level staff. His first response should have been empathy and apology. Instead, he demonstrated the culture at United.   Would you hire him even at a low-level position in 'your' company with that attitude?  
In conclusion, for enough frequent flier miles or future flying credit, someone would have sold their seat, the staff should have simply offered more. Now, the company's stock has lost almost $1 billion. One person with a customer-service attitude could have prevented all of this. Instead, we had people with uncontrolled power who could do what they wanted and at the end had the blessings of United. The CEO ratified their behavior with his comments. 

Afraid of making admissions that could lead to a lawsuit, Oscar Munoz, United's CEO,  helped the people who support him, the shareholders, lose almost $1 billion overnight. Does he really think that what his airline did, and he seems to have supported, prevent a lawsuit? Any lawyer in America would be delighted to take this on.

Steven Riznyk is the CEO of San Diego Biz Law and a high-level negotiator and business strategist who is hired to analyze and resolve complex issues worldwide for 29 years. He has represented politicians, movie producers, actors, and others who need to keep their problems out of the media and out of the public records of the court. He can be reached at 619-793-4827.   

Related Keywords:United Airlines, Passenger Dragged Off Plane, Air Security, Airline abuse, Stanford Prison Experiment

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