Air Travel as 'Rashomon': Mammoth Wrap-up of United Airlines Theories

Many ways of viewing one fateful flight. Were you aboard? If so, please let us know!

The crunch time is at hand for a "real" article, so I will be away from this space for a number of days. Much like a python sending a whole pig through its system as long-term sustenance, I offer here a bolus of material, for digestion over a sustained period, concerning the saga of that diverted United flight. (Previous installments: one, two, three, four, and possibly others I have missed.) The replies below are not all the messages that have come in -- far from it -- but they represent the main theories and points of view.

1) 'To be fair' dept: I was on yet another long-haul cross-country United flight yesterday, and it couldn't have been more pleasant or upbeat. Everything I have said about a resentful or put-upon workplace culture was the opposite of what I experienced on this trip. Plus, the pre-safety-briefing Jeff Smisek video was the new "we believe in customer service" one mentioned here and shown below. Whether or not bigger changes are underway at the company, as suggested by this video, I thank the cabin crew of UA 574, SFO-IAD on April 8, for attitude fully matching the claims in the video. I have sent a "great job" message about them to United's customer-support site.

2) 'Actually, you're not being fair.' Here is one sample rebuttal, from a member of the extended United family. Others follow it, from United pilots. A reader writes:
>>I am a United brat - my dad was a pilot with them for 20 years and I grew up traveling only on them.  Clearly I have flown United more than any other airline.  That said, as I have grown up and graduated from my flight benefits, I have begun traveling for business with other airlines, primarily with American, so I'm not completely inexperienced.

 Maybe I'm feeling defensive, but I really think you are using your position as a national journalist to pursue vendetta of opinion against United. I genuinely do not understand why you think it's professional to publish 4 or 5 articles about how terrible they are, based off of biased and anecdotal evidence and pass it off as journalism - when it is clearly opinion.

 Other thoughts:

  Traveling is no longer a luxury experience.  As people demand and airlines come under increasing pressure to lower the costs of their flights, any costs that can be cut will.  In order for airlines to be cost competitive, employees have seen their benefits and pensions cut, threatened with furlough, and been generally asked to do more with less. If people want that luxury experience they need to pay for it - like paying for a business for first class seat.  Every time I fly in a premium class my experience is unctuous and overwhelmingly decadent.  And I like it!  You get what you pay for.

 We live in a post -9/11 world, and this has infused every aspect of the flying experience.  As someone who still lived at home post-9/11, I can give a firsthand account about the pervasive fear of flight attends and pilots after. They were literally worried about their lives  You and other may think that the captain from the Baltimore flight made a poor judgment call - but that's what it was - a judgment call.  The captain is ultimately responsible for the lives and safety of his passengers and crew, and he did what he thought was best.  Also, it doesn't shock me that the airline stood behind the captain and crew. That's what they should do. When there are 230 people rocketing through 30,000 feet, there needs to be some sense of hierarchy and leadership.

I genuinely think your article showed shoddy journalism.  You only presented only one side of the situation -  although I grant that you did reach out to United, but unequivocally accepted their story, without exploring other explanations.  Do you really and honestly believe that the pilot grounded the flight because two parents coolly and collegially  voice rational complaints?  Clearly there are other elements to this story and I should think, as someone how has "millions upon millions of accumulated miles, and super-elite status", you should be able to provide some critical thinking and insight to the situation.

Yes, there are heinous airline employees but there are also awesome employees.  How about mentioning every incident when an airline employee goes out of their way to accommodate, because in my experience, that is by far more common.  I mean, the guy from the dress code story obviously a bit over the top - he wanted to claim assault on the pilot for poking him and he's listed at least two other incidents when he's formally complained to the airline.  So while I'm not defending the pilot from his dress code story, you have to admit that this person has no problem complaining (and is clearly an asshole - who takes a photo and sends it to corporate, a fucking tattletale?).  You're publishing these horror stories from people who obviously have a bone to pick - and it's fantastical journalism and completely biased towards the person complaining. A little objectivity and research might do you some credit.<< 
On the "research" front -- hey, I have been trying to get lots of people at United to explain more about what has been going on. For the rest, hold on.

3) From a United pilot, short version:

>>I fly for the "Continental" side of United as a line pilot. My wife, though, is a pilot for the United side. This story is very incredible indeed. There is NO WAY this is a normal occurrence. I don't know any pilots that would react that way. I think the story needs further context. Although United, like most airlines, have cranky bad seeds that bloom into bad customer experiences once in a while, this kind of behavior is unheard of. I am very skeptical of the story. Nearly all of the flight crew members I deal with every day I go to work are professional and indeed, pleasant.<<
Yes, I agree that this cannot be a normal episode. As we follow the message trail, there are some attempts to explain it.

4) From a different United pilot, long version:
220px-Rashomon_poster_2.jpg>>As a pilot for United Airline's with more than 2 decades of industry experience, I am saddened by your experiences on United and even more saddened by your public attempt to shame the employees at United.  My defense is three fold.  First, your sample rate is tiny in comparison to the number of workers and daily flights.  Second, the public's insistence on cheap fairs is driving the quality of employee down, and third, you fail to realize that employees react to their management more than they do to the customer.  If there is a failure to be found then why not look at management and it's policies of demoralizing workers at every turn.

[JF note: I am going to step in here. On point (1) I agree about the sample rate, but I have flown enough through the decades to observe a "general corporate culture."  And, for instance, a recent "America's meanest airlines" survey unfortunately gave United the worst rating, a dead-last result that prevails in some other surveys too. On point (2) I agree that the cheap-fare mania is a central factor in the race-toward-sardinehood in modern air travel. More on that below. On point (3), about the responsibility of corporate leaders to set an overall tone, I totally agree. That is why my leitmotif has been to ask: what is it about the current United corporate structure that -- on average, and in my observation -- leaves so many of the employees seeming so unhappy at their jobs? This pilot suggests some answers.]

To begin with, there are over 11,000 pilots at United and 30,000 flight attendants.  I am aware that the number of disgruntled and under performing workers in our industry has increased over the last decade, but to impugn the behaviour of all United workers based on the half dozen examples in your blog is to me shameful.  How about the hundreds of "orchid letters" United receives every day?  How about when I give up my meal so the Purser can create a vegetarian meal that wasn't boarded?  How about the fact that nearly every flight has a disruptive passenger like the one I had yesterday that demanded the pilots use the cockpit fax machine to fax paperwork for him because he'd had that done before?

Most pilots began their career with a decade or more of service to their country fighting in foreign countries or 4 years of college with a B.S. or higher degree, and came to United expecting a bright upper middle class future.  Instead, what we got was a 60% pay cut, thousands of lay offs, lost pensions, and zero career advancement all because our industry is structurally flawed.  The airline industry is structured with few barriers to entry such that it constantly creates new carriers that have younger employees and newer planes with costs far below their Legacy competitors so ultimately the older workers lose their jobs and pensions at the expense of the younger, and so far this has been the case for nearly every carrier, Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, Braniff, and countless others.  Each company employed tens of thousands of employees who lost their jobs and pensions at a point in time they could least afford it and  all because the public demanded a $79 ticket from New York to Florida.  As a result of this history, the education and experience level of new pilots is plummeting.  I challenge you to collect data on JetBlue pilots and compare the number of pilots there who have had a DUI and no college experience versus that average at United, Delta, or American.

The best run corporations in America have managers that inspire their employees to work better and harder.  Even in the face of adversity many corporations have found a way to rally their workers and put the best face forward.  Why is it then that the major airlines seem so utterly incapable of the same?  The answer and root cause of disgruntled airline employee behaviour has more to do with the actions of management than any other single item.  When employees have to fight for water to be boarded on flights or to fight for the right go to their parents funeral without being penalized after they have lost so much else you can imagine how frustrated they become.  United's new management has failed at nearly every level of integration.  Time and again, they have chosen the cheapest option available and the results show.  Whether it's the reservation system, the baggage system, the coffee vendor, the new seat formation, or the training materials for employees, United's new managers have gone with the low cost alternative.  In some cases the cheaper alternative may have been better, but for a corporation that hopes to charge a premium price for a premium product, isn't it possible that a corporate philosophy of lowering costs at the expense of service is not what makes a world class airline.  In short, the employees at United have had to fight tooth and nail for the most basic rights, and the adversarial atmosphere this has created is disastrous for the company.  If United's management were quickly to resolve the outstanding contract negotiations and then just as quickly implement them and treat their employees with a modicum of dignity and respect, you can rest assured that the number of "incidents" like those you have highlighted would all but disappear.  Workers act and react in a manner equal to how they are treated.  Treat them respectfully and show them their value and they will respond in kind.  Treat them as chattel and you can expect them to behave the same.

Finally, a note on the particular instance involving the family traveling to Baltimore.  I am not personally aware of the specifics, but I will say that flight attendants have been given very particular direction on how to communicate disruptive behaviour to the pilots.  If the flight attendant told the pilots that she felt personally threatened by the passenger, then the pilots would be left with absolutely no alternative but to divert.  The rules are very specific and not open to interpretation and are centered on the flight attendants interpretation and explanation of the passenger behaviour.  It is more than likely that the information given to the captain was of a nature such that it precluded any other choice.<<
I'll keep things moving here but again ask you to note the pilot's mention of messages from the cabin crew. We'll pick up that theme in the very next item. Also, for the record, I've flown millions of miles, and therefore paid what has to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, to United over the decades, so I'm hardly trying to do it harm. We move on to:

5) Let's stroll into the land of logic. As everyone has noted, at face value the story of UA flight 638 does not make sense.  Parents complain about a violent movie-- and the pilot repsonds with an unscheduled landing, delaying a planeful of people and costing unknown thousands of dollars in fuel and salary?

Logically speaking, one of these things must be true -- or some combination of them:
  1. The parents are misremembering, or sugar-coating, how much of a fuss they put up;
  2. The pilot grossly over-reacted; or
  3. The flight attendants exaggerated or hyped the problem in describing it to the pilot. 
Obviously I don't know what happened on this flight. But in a previous similar episode, described here, a more complete set of evidence did come in, and it heavily favored explanation #3. In that case, a flight attendant told the captain that a passenger "would not stop" taking pictures in a plane; the passenger flatly denied it, and said that he'd stopped, with just one picture, as soon as he was warned; the captain believed the attendant and kicked the passenger off the plane. But later many other passengers wrote in to confirm the original passenger's story and deny the claim of the fight attendant.

I have my own guesses about how the dispute under discussion evolved, but they will remain guesses -- unless I hear from anyone else who was on the flight that day. (Including the captain, whom I tried to contact.) So if you were on United flight 638, on February 2, 2013, please let me know.

6) What other pilots are saying. A pilot with decades of flying experience writes:
>>I subscribe to a professional-pilot paysite forum, ProPilotWorld--you have to be commercial-or-ATP-licensed to be allowed to join--and I've been following the Chicago diversion story there.  Surprisingly (since there are so many airline pilots who are members), nothing solid has emerged so far; usually these things get explained in a matter of hours by somebody very close to the situation in question.  Everybody is saying, "There -has- to be another side to this story," but one thing that has emerged, and that I wasn't aware of, is that many situations of this sort are totally controlled by the FAs [Flight Attendants].

For one thing, if an FA reports to the flight deck that he or she feels there is a security threat in the cabin, the flight deck immediately goes into automatic lockdown: NOBODY is allowed in, NOBODY is allowed out, not even if there's a fire in the cabin or a riot in progress.  The pilots can't even come out to take a piss.  ("You done with that coffeecup, Bob?")

At that point, all the captain knows is what he's being told over the phone by the FA, and he or she could well decide to divert because that person is telling him that they're scared of a situation.  This could explain the delay between the turn-off-the-movie discussion and the captain's decision to go to ORD: he has talked it over with the FA, he has called the company, somebody in Denver is trying to make a decision, Denver finally calls back and tells him to go to Chicago...

So before we blame the captain...<<
Here is a sample post from that professional-pilots' forum:
>>Many times FA's get it in their minds that a passenger is a problem and will stop at nothing until the flight crew believes them.

I can't leave the flight deck to deal with the issue, so I have to rely on what I'm being told. Generally other FA's will not go against the problem FA while airborne.

My choices are limited... If the FA continues to call up and complain, at some point I have to put faith in what she/he is telling me and report it to the company. They're generally the ones (unless it's an obvious threat) that will tell me to divert and where to go.

All it takes is a look sometimes to set off these FA's.<<

7) The parents speak. I got this wrap-up message from them, which they asked me to share:
>>Thank you, once again, for enabling us to tell our story, which you kindly posted on your blog. As we indicated originally, we prefer to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of our children. We appreciate the fact that you, and many of your readers, accepted our story despite our anonymity. To any doubters, we point out that we did reveal to you our identity, and that of the Chicago Police officers and United officials who can attest to the veracity of our story. Further, United's somewhat empty response confirms our story.

We would like to apologize again to our fellow passengers on flight 638 for the hardships they must have incurred after the diversion of the plane. We thank the many passengers who supported us and agreed with our complaint, and we thank Rob Cohen, the director of the Alex Cross, for his personal response. We were told on the plane by the FA that the movie had been edited for language (!), but it seems no amount of editing can ever make a PG-13 movie child-friendly.

The story has now appeared in a large number of national and international media outlets, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Therefore, we feel our goal has been mostly achieved: to foster a discussion on the issues we raised: Exposing children to patently inappropriate content without parental consent, and the capricious and irresponsible behavior of the United pilot, whose anonymity we are also protecting.

Of course, we would have preferred a more comprehensive response from United regarding their handling of this incident, and regarding the outcome of their purported in-flight media policy review. A personal response to our original letter would have been preferable and might have prevented the generation of such bad press for them.<<

8) Passengers 'want' better service, but not enough to pay for it. From another traveler, confirming what some of the United pilots said earlier on:
>>I just caught up with your most recent series on airline service and your search for a "United Field Theory." I have what might be a relevant data point.

I was a United frequent flyer for many years (although hardly "elite") until I finally got tired of writing them letters of complaint...  Sometime probably in late 2002, when I was still plenty steamed with United, I was invited to be a member of a focus group in Los Angeles on airline service. As usual, they didn't tell us who the client was, but from the timing I think it might have been part of the market research aimed at launching "Delta Song."

I went in and vented about United and about the generally bad experience we were all getting from airlines. (We got paid extra for cutting up magazines and making a collage -- no kidding, just like in grade school -- that expressed our views on this topic. Mine included a United plane that was part Tyrannosaurus and was chomping on some hapless guy. But I digress.)

It became obvious from the questions that the focus group was intended to test how much more people would pay for better service. At one point, we were given three one-page descriptions of a flying experience: one that sounded like Southwest, one that seemed to be based on the normal service on major carriers, and one that sounded fabulous, like flying the QE II. Then we were asked this: If a normal LA to New York fare on the regular carrier was $300, how much more would you pay for that luxury service? We were supposed to raise our hands, listen while the market researcher raised the price in increments, then drop our hands when the price passed our dealbreaker point.

Well, it seemed like my hand was up for the next half-hour. I was by far the last holdout, agreeing to pay something approaching $500 for what they'd described. Now, I was a nontenured college instructor and not anything like wealthy. Granted, I also wasn't raising a family. But an extra $100 or $150 to be treated like royalty instead of herded like cattle? Yeah, sign me up.

But I was the ONLY person who was so price-elastic. One other guy held out to $375, as I recall, but most of the dozen or so other focus-ees said they wouldn't pay more than an extra $25. I'm still kind of astonished when I think about this. I pointed out to everyone that $300 was already not very much money for the amazingly complex, high-tech operation of flying someone in near-perfect safety from one coast to another, while also managing hundreds of other flights at the same time. (They might even have said round-trip, I don't remember.) I got the impression that some of my fellow panelists had never thought of it that way, but also that I wasn't changing anyone's mind.

The point is, United is dealing with a public that would board a flying concentration camp if it would save them a few bucks. What's amazing, really, is that some airline service for non-elite coach passengers is still decent, that there hasn't been more of a race to the bottom already.<<

9) More on the mentality of entitlement. A reader writes:
>>The plane that the parents were surely on was an A320 series airplane, which has drop-down screens. The flight attendants can only make all of the screens go up or down, they have no control over individual screens. Moreover, I find it highly unlikely the flight attendants are allowed to simply stop showing movies to everyone on the plane at the request of one set of parents. The parents should complain to United about their movie choices (although the movie was PG-13 and already edited for content, as are all mainscreen movies), not insinuate that the flight attendants are lying.

It sounds more like your correspondent was being over-entitled and potentially repeatedly harassed flight attendants about something which they made clear at the start they had no control over.

In general, it is this kind of attitude - that the airline should make heroic accommodations just for them - that I've sadly seen much too much of as a long time 1K.

One of the things about elite status is that it gives certain fliers the right to feel like self-centered jerks around airline staff - to put on airs and treat staff as their lessers. I'm not saying I can excuse poor airline staff behavior, but I feel a certain amount of sympathy for airline staff (flight attendants, etc.) that must continually put up with over-entitled yahoos bossing them around and making unreasonable requests.

In a way, I feel like the rise of airline elite status and the decline of the flying experience for the "regular person" has only been a bad thing. It used to be there were few elites on airplanes and everyone was treated reasonably well. Now, a select group of people (me included sometimes) get pampered by the airline while the rest get treated poorly. The pampering goes to some people's heads while the experience of being treated poorly makes the rest resentful and unhappy about flying.<<

10) That old favorite, the ratchet of 'security'. A reader writes:
>>As a million miler with United I'd ask you to please continue to investigate the story  around the family that were ejected from the plane for complaining about the movie.  The airline industry in general is known for the low quality of customer service. However  post 9/11,  and as a frequent traveler, I  see more and more abuse from airline personnel  who are empowered to use "security" as an excuse for what often amounts to pettiness.

In this case, law enforcement determined that an obvious mistake was made that victimized the innocent and wasted tax payer dollars. Someone was either incompetent or malicious. Either way, they should be held accountable.

Please keep after United and do not let the story drop.  They care nothing for consumers but you in the media, you they fear. Please make them explain what happened.  Nothing would make me happier than to see this story go viral.     If nothing else, some "heat" might make the individuals involved behave better in future.

I'd also be interested in the view of law enforcement of the issue ? if I as an individual, deliberately waste the time of law enforcement, that in itself is a crime.<<

11) Let's get back to the topic of movies. A reader writes:
>>Thank you for publicizing how United Airlines has dealt with parental concerns over showing violent movies on shared screens.  I have written to United about this twice.  I received a brush off both times.  Here is my most recent letter in case it is of interest.  I would be extremely interested to know if and how United changes their movie policy based on the incident you report.  My son's comment to me during the flight (full context below), "Mama, it is nicer to watch dancing than people being shot" was especially poignant as this was the day after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings (of which my son knew nothing, thankfully).
Content of letter to United:
"I am writing to request a change in your in-flight movie policy.  Please stop showing violent films on all flights with shared movie screens.  My family and I are in the Foreign Service and thus fly regularly.  I have written to your company about this issue once previously and our most recent travel has brought it up again.  

"On December 15, 2012 we flew from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Denver Colorado.  On the leg of the trip from Seoul to San Francisco, our plane had a shared movie screen.  The first movie screened was the Bourne Legacy.  I was flying with my 7 year old son.  This movie was not only violent, but contained a scene in which multiple individuals were hiding in their workplace being stalked and shot and killed one by one by a co-worker.  When the screen is shared there is no way to shield my son from these images without literally covering him with a blanket.  As this was the first movie screened and during meal service this was impossible.  I did my best to distract him but he, of course, witnessed the violence.  The next morning while breakfast was being served a movie about dancing was being screened.  It was quite sad to hear my seven year old state, "Mama, it is nicer to watch dancing than people being shot."

"As an attorney and a strong supporter of the First Amendment, I do not see the answer to this problem in regulation of your ability to show these movies nor of Hollywood's ability to make them.  I see the answer in individual and corporate responsibility.  As a matter of corporate responsibility, please do not force me to subject my child to these violent images.

"As you know, Foreign Service personnel are required to use American carriers as their first choice for business related travel.  Although I do not feel it is appropriate to legislate your choice of movies, my choice of airlines is legislated.  I will be bringing this issue up with AFSA (the American Foreign Service Association) if I do not receive a satisfactory response.

"My first e-mail to you about violent movies being screened was answered with "Thank you for your input.  Please see our in-flight magazine for all our great movie selections."  Please do not send a similar response to this correspondence.<<

12) Why the movies matter. From another reader:
>>An interesting thread.  I just had one comment.  To this day I vividly remember seeing the movie "Manhunter", the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter on screen as an in-flight movie.  It must have been 1986 or 1987.  I was twelve or thirteen.  Suffice it to say, not really appropriate for a mass audience on a plane.<<

13) Similarly about the movies:
>>I had a similar experience on United a few years ago, when my youngest son was about 4 or 5.  I looked up from my book to see my son, who had been coloring, staring at the movie screen.  I don't know what movie it was because I wasn't watching, but onscreen (for several minutes), a man was holding a knife to a woman's throat, speaking with a menacing expression on his face and her backed up against a wall.  When I complained to a flight attendant I was told that she could do nothing about movie content and that business passengers would complain if they only showed "Disney" movies.

Fortunately, I wasn't removed from the flight.  (Even though I may not have been quite as cordial as your correspondent.)  I did complain online to United customer service.  Like your correspondent, no response.

Anyway, I appreciate you putting some light on this problem.  It's tough enough traveling with kids -- this kind of thing makes it far worse!<<

14) Adventures in PR. From our last reader for now:
>>I am far, far outside my realm of competence here, and surely this is either (a) unfounded or (b) obvious to you, but the PR statement from United strikes me as rather odd.

First, it does nothing at all beyond confirming facts you have already published. It does assert that "[we] have since conducted a full review of our inflight entertainment." But the incident took place in February, only 60 days before; allowing some time for reporting, how complete could such a review be?  If any aspect of the review could be construed in the airline's favor - participation of senior management, consultation with noted authorities -- why not mention it? And what sort of review could not feature some aspects that a top-shelf PR staff could construe favorably?

Second, if for some reason the statement could not be cast to reflect some credit on the airline, why make it at all?  Yes, it would be good not to annoy an influential journalist. But surely there are ways to placate James Fallows without issuing a statement, and it's not really a statement that's going to delight any writer.  Why not plead an ongoing investigation, threat of litigation, threat of a pending union grievance, or insist that security regulations prevent public discussion?  

Another easy target for the PR person is the question of fact which remains unaddressed so far: could the individual screen in fact have been retracted?  As far as I can see, any  response to this question makes the airline look better. Either the flight attendant was right and nothing could be done, or the flight attendant was regrettably mistaken about the capabilities of this particular aircraft, having extensive experience in another time where this could not be done. Either way, it shifts the discussion away from "lazy, unhelpful flight crew" and toward the hardware.

Finally, diversions are costly. There might have been an investigation into the entertainment, but there must have been an investigation into the diversion. An extra airframe cycle, the lost time, the fuel expenditure, landing and takeoff at ORD -- that's got to add up to many thousands of dollars, doesn't it? The circumstances invite scrutiny: however scary the angry passenger might be, they're flying with their child. If my subordinate spent thousands of dollars over this (and called down the wrath of The Atlantic on my head), I'd want to ask whether they were really a threat to the aircraft? Or to neighboring passengers?  Since such an investigation, formal or casual, involves so many moving parts - the chief pilot, the pilot's union, probably the flight attendants' union as well, conceivably the FAA or Chicago Police -- why wouldn't the PR person try to indicate vaguely that Something Was Done? 

How often are flights diverted due to passenger disturbance, anyway?  My impression was that most of these incidents, since 9/11, still merit a brief mention in major newspapers.<< 
With that, I wish you well for the next few days. And as I said, my latest United trip was a pleasure in all ways -- within the range of "pleasure" allowed in modern air travel -- and I compliment everyone involved. And why am I invoking Rashomon? Something else for readers to look into these next few days.