The Way We Live Now: United Airlines and 'Disruptive' Passengers

When standoffish customer service can make business sense
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This is a long item; to read it in "classic view" click here. The messages below were some of those that came in over the weekend, after I mentioned my intention to say more about United Airlines. 

First, on the economics behind United's current attitude. A reader writes:
>>I am an economics graduate student, and my partner has family working for Delta. She is thus able to fly standby for free, and me for a discount (and the economist part perhaps induces a certain line of thinking..). I'm in Los Angeles; our families are in Colorado and the Chicago suburbs. To get between LA and Denver, we have to fly via the Delta hubs of Salt Lake City or Minneapolis. To get to Chicago from LA, we have to fly from LA to Salt Lake or Minneapolis and then onward...  On a bad day, it might involve Atlanta, Memphis, or Detroit--Delta's other hubs.

Now, this is partially just due to having family in Delta-inconvenient places, but look at the list of major United hubs: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Dulles, and Newark. [JF note: And don't forget its international connections through Seattle.] Newark is probably the least-awesome of these, but United has hubs in the 4 largest American cities, two of the richest metropolitan areas that are also hubs of technology and government, and the largest city in the middle of the Mississippi and the Pacific. It's hard to beat, and the odds of United having the most (and most direct) options for a wide range of long-distance flights seems quite high for a quite large fraction of Americans, and especially for Americans in wealthy and travel-heavy metropolitan regions. 

As to the customer service angle: if your business has a particular advantage that induces a great number of customers to default to it, then skimping on customer service won't cost you much, and investing in it won't gain you as much. I'm not sure how plausible this is as the fully story, but it seems plausibly part of it.<<
This post does describe my situation as a customer. The places I have mainly wanted to go over the past decades-- DC, SF, LA, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, and via the West Coast to China or Japan or Australia -- are exactly the routes United specializes in. So I end up with millions of miles and super-elite status, but also with a sense that the airline knows that no matter what I will generally end up traveling with them. 

Next, from the passenger who lodged the original "Bartleby the Scrivener Goes Airborne" report last week, and who was criticized by many other readers:
>>I must have been unclear in my note to you. My wife and I had booked our seats in January, and we were seated together. We checked in two hours before the flight and got our boarding passes, for our seats - together. They split us up as we were walking on the plane. I guess the comments show how far we have come in ceding control of our travel experience that the readers felt that *I* was the one being unreasonable.
 
On our return flight to Houston, the service on the plane reflects the "don't bother me" attitude that I usually see on United.
 
As you know, they pass out small bottles of water in business class, and the seats even had a little indentation to hold them. Both my wife and I were sleeping when these were passed out. After we woke up, my wife asked if the water had been distributed. Yes, she was told, but they "ran out" so we wouldn't get any. Another FA overheard, and said that wasn't the case, walked away and brought us our water.
 
Later in the flight, my wife asked for some sparkling water from the first FA. She said they "ran out" of sparkling water as well.
 
You will not be surprised when we did not believe her.<<
For compare-and-contrast purposes, a reader in Juneau describes another airline's approach. His account matches my own, more limited expertience with Alaska Airlines:
>>Just read your blog about lousy treatment by airline staff and I have to stand up for Alaska Airlines outstanding flight attendants  and staff.

Having flown on many other airlines, no one else I have flown with has such courteous, customer-oriented staff, (with the possible exception of my experience on Air France). Even when there was tension over contract negotiations, attendants never let their frustrations affect their service to passengers. I can grouse about management of Alaska Air, and hate getting stuck on Delta when making connections now that they are partners, but pilots and employees of Alaska Air are The Best and merit not getting lumped together with United or Delta.<<

A stroll down memory lane. Another reader reminds us of the conditions that may have produced today's workforce attitude at UAL:
>>I'd been a lifelong United fan.  Not just a flyer, but a proud shareholder back to the days of three shares bought with teenage summer job earnings (actual paper shares!  was ever there such a thing?).  For me, a Chicagoan, they were the home team, always buying and flying Boeing's latest and greatest.  Delta may have been the grand old dame, but United was the courteous valet.

Then came the bankruptcy.  Not ever a good thing, but there are ways to go about it that are less bad.  To those of us who were paying attention, it had become the most likely outcome a few years prior when the board capitulated to the pilots union.

I was in the Red Carpet Room at DIA the day of the filing.  Went up to the desk for help with changing plans.  There was weather (when isn't there?) making for system-wide complications, so figuring things out took some time.  And talent, which I was lucky enough to have found with the 23-year-service employee I had helping me.  As he keyed, we talked, and I learned about his wife, cabin crew with 28-years under her belt.  51 years of service between the two of them.  The filing came up (how could it not?), and the tears in his eyes told me everything I needed to know:  any modern corporation willing to shred that kind of loyalty on the inside wasn't likely to bat an eye when it got around to "rationalizing" customer relations.

Not long after, made the switch to American.  Not always a good thing, but certainly less bad.<<

Now, the passenger report. I know the real names of the family, in Baltimore, lodging the complaint below. For now I am not using their names, although on my inquiry they said they would be willing to be identified if necessary. I am also not naming the specific pilot they refer to in their complaint, though I have found his name and particulars in various United rosters. For the time being the point is the general "this is how we live now" observation. Here goes:
>>We trust you will find the following narrative interesting and relevant to your frequent essays on air travel in general, and United in particular.

On February 2, 2013 we travelled with our two young boys (4 and 8 years old) aboard United 638 from Denver to Baltimore's BWI airport. The inflight entertainment was the movie Alex Cross, which United's own inflight magazine rated as 'T', or, "Adult Themes". It includes extreme, graphic violence and sexually explicit content. On our plane, an A320, the movie was projected on drop-down screens above the seats, such that we could not shield our young children from this inappropriate content. Alarmed by the opening scenes, we asked two flight attendants if they could turn off the monitor; both claimed it was not possible.

The first flight attendant also claimed that the screen could not be folded up independently (which it clearly could) and that even if it could, she would still not authorize closing it because of the passengers sitting behind us. At this point, the passengers behind us spoke up and agreed the content was inappropriate for children and announced it would not bother them at all to switch it off. Both flight attendants, and later the purser, claimed that they have no authority or ability to change or turn off the movie. The purser did, however, agree with us, as did many more of the passengers around us, that it is patently inappropriate to expose children to such content.

We asked if the captain has the authority to address this issue, but received no response. A few minutes later we asked for the captain's name (I failed to make note when he welcomed us on the PA system), and was told, by the purser, that we will have to ask him ourselves when we disembark.

Throughout these interactions the atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made. The flight continued without incident, while my wife and I engaged our children to divert their attention from the horrific scenes on the movie screens.

More than an hour later the captain, [name withheld for now], announced that due to "security concerns", our flight was being diverted to Chicago's ORD. Although this sounded ominous, all passengers, us included, were calm. After landing a Chicago police officer boarded the plane and, to our disbelief, approached us and asked that we collect our belongings, and follow her to disembark. The captain, apparently, felt that our complaint constituted grave danger to the aircraft, crew and the other passengers, and that this danger justified inconveniencing his crew, a few of whom "timed out" during the diversion, and a full plane of your customers, causing dozens of them to miss their connections, wasting time, precious jet fuel, and adding to United's carbon footprint. Not to mention unnecessarily involving several of Chicago's finest, two Border Protection officers and several United and ORD managers, and an FBI agent, who all met us at the gate. After we were interviewed (for less than 5 minutes), our identities and backgrounds checked, we were booked on the next flight to BWI, and had to linger in the terminal for hours with our exhausted and terrified little boys.

Everyone involved: The FBI agent, the police officers, United employees, the passengers around us and (we were told) some of the crew, were incredulous, and explicit in their condemnation of Captain [XX]'s actions. However, even United's Area Supervisor, although cordial and helpful, was powerless to override the Captain's decision that we be removed from the plane.

To us, this incident raises two grave issues. First, the abuse of power by Captain [XX]. We understand that airline captains can and should have complete authority. However, when this authority is used for senseless, vindictive acts, it must be addressed.

Second, and of even greater concern is United's decision to inflict upon minors grossly inappropriate cinematic content, without parents or guardians having the ability to opt out. Had this been in a cinema or a restaurant, we would have simply left if the content were too violent, or too sexual, for a preschooler and a 2nd grader. Cruising at 30,000 feet, leaving was not an option.

To this date, our appeals to United to address these issues remain unanswered. We wrote to their Customer Service, and directly to their CEO, but received no responses.<<
More to come. Update I have asked United's press operation about this episode and will report back if I hear from them.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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