United has truly betrayed the customer with its latest blunder

Photo by Brenda Lin

Because of my family situation, I traveled extensively as a child. I was a Continental Airlines frequent flyer by age eight, which was before their merger with United Airlines. The flight attendants and gate agents all knew me by name and greeted me with a smile each time I flew.

Now, traveling by plane is a miserable chore. I get to the airport early to make it through security and then spend extra time waiting at the gate drinking a $4 water because I have never once remembered to bring a reusable water bottle. My carry-on is excessively heavy because I am mistrustful of leaving my laptop or my camera in my checked bag. Traveling used to be a luxury; now it is a burden.

After 9/11, airlines took a significant hit. Because of an increase in security costs and a decrease in customers, Congress created the Air Transportation Stabilization Board, which gave out $10 billion in loans to struggling airline companies. Flight attendants and airline employees suffered significant layoffs and pay cuts. Today, the three top airline companies only pay flight attendants once the cabin door is closed because of negotiations that took place in the early 2000s. Any time spent at the gate preparing the plane or helping passengers board is unpaid.

In addition, to save costs during the recession while oil prices were skyrocketing, airlines stopped serving meals, stopped providing pillows and blankets and began charging for checked luggage. These cost-saving measures worked. However, despite the economy’s recovery and record low oil prices, the savings have not been transferred to the customer. Baggage fees and expensive food are still the norm for most airlines.

Airlines also have more influence than ever over the customer. Captains and flight attendants have an incredible amount of power. They can land a plane or refuse a passenger entry because of a perceived threat. Airlines like United also regularly over-book their flights because they count on a certain number of people not showing up. While this practice is not completely unethical, airlines must be held accountable for their actions.

Generally, the solution is to offer high-value vouchers to get people to give up their spot. When bribery does not work, the airline may select people who will not board. In return, the passengers are legally entitled to $1300 or four times the value of the ticket.

United claimed they needed four people to give up seats so their employees could travel to Louisville for a different flight. Rather than working out a solution in the terminal, they allowed passengers to board. United also only offered $800 to passengers; they could have easily offered more so someone with a more flexible schedule would have given up their seat.

By trying to cut corners, United ended up costing themselves much more. They treated the man who refused to give up his seat as a criminal and had him removed by law enforcement. United breached their own contract of carriage by demanding a paying customer leave his seat for non-paying employees. Based on United’s contract, they can only deny someone a seat for oversold flights. That flight was not oversold, and the man was not denied boarding but rather ripped out of his seat by thugs.

Airlines need to realize that treating a customer with respect should not be viewed as an inconvenience but an obligation. We pay for a service and while they are not required to provide comfort, they do have to treat people with dignity. I understand that airlines need a certain amount of control for safety but they cannot continue to treat people with contempt. Using excuses and calling customers “disorderly” does not justify beating them. While airlines can charge whatever they want, people will react when they do not receive what they paid for. And calling in henchmen to deal with them is never an appropriate response.