By now many of you will have read or seen the story of a paying passenger who was physically removed by law enforcement from a United Airlines flight. The underlying cause of the issue was that airlines routinely overbook seats on flights, in order to take account of no-shows and people who fail to arrive at the departure zone on time for other reasons. In this case, passengers did not volunteer to give up their seats in order to address the overbooking situation, so the airline arbitrarily decided to bump a passenger who, since he had paid for a seat and was a medical doctor with patients to see, declined to be bumped. At which point United had him removed from the plane by law enforcement in a way that caused him bodily injury.
The United CEO has, inexplicably, refused to issue an unconditional apology and has instead chosen to defend the airline publicly.
There are a bunch of different backdrops to this issue, but here are a few that spring to mind.
1. United Airlines has a worse reputation than many airlines for customer service, in an industry that has a lot of deep-seated dysfunctions when it comes to customer service. There was a good reason why a disgruntled passenger started the website untied.com a few years ago. (This site is now being subjected to a campaign of lawsuits from United Airlines in order to shut it down.)
2. The airline industry routinely overbooks planes and (mostly) gets away with it. The strange thing in all of this is that buying and paying for a ticket does not automatically give a passenger the right to be carried on the flight that they booked. This is definitely at odds with most other industries, where if you book a service, you expect to avail yourself of the service at the specific date and time, and you can sue the provider for breach of contract if that does not occur.
3. Airlines continue to get away with these sorts of behaviors because, at the end of the day, their stock prices and business performance do not suffer. As this article makes clear, consumers are not willing to punish airlines sufficiently for poor attention to customer service to get the attention of airline leaders and stockholders.
Another article makes the same point using stock price diagrams. Bad treatment of customers pays off.
The bottom line is that airline behaviors will only change when consumers refuse to buy airline tickets from airlines who provide bad customer service, or who engage in devious business practices. So it is up to We The Customers.