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United Airlines PR disaster – Mr Munoz will go far

April 11, 2017

The United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is clearly heading for great things. Not only did he defend the actions of the security goons in Chicago on the grounds that the unfortunate doctor who was booted off the flight to Louisville was being “disruptive and belligerent”, but he stated that “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

That’s what’s known in the media business as doubling down.

What, I wonder, would be flying wrong? Picking on an Asian couple would entirely chime with the Trumpian age. What the hell were they doing on the flight in the first place? Perhaps flying wrong would be to select a nice middle-class couple of a less obvious ethnic origin and dragging them screaming and kicking off the flight. Or insisting that your staff shouldn’t leave it to the last moment to get home in time for work, and expect those who pay their wages to have their lives thus disrupted. Or insisting that your people should have the foresight to avoid an on-board rebellion by selecting those to be denied boarding before they actually get on the plane.

What, I wonder, does United’s procedures handbook say about these matters? Is there a section about profiling targets for extraction? As in “if you have to kick someone off the flight, choose an elderly Asian doctor, because his culture abhors confrontation. Don’t go for a 300-pound American footballer who could probably punch a hole in the fuselage without the help of explosives. And don’t go for an elderly matron who looks like your grandmother, or every other grandmother on the flight will rise in solidarity. Don’t select anyone in uniform, or you might be accused of being unpatriotic.”

Probably not. Most likely this wisdom is passed on orally – nothing written down.

If I was happily settled into my seat, having anaesthetised my legs to allow them to fold up into an stress position behind the seat in front of me, looking forward to my complementary dog biscuit, I might be mildly pissed off to be told by a couple of paramilitary flight attendants that my presence was no longer welcome, and then to be dragged out bleeding by a SWAT team from the airport security force.

And if I was a doctor, I might wonder at the gall of an airline that would be quite happy to call out on the intercom “is there a doctor on the plane?” and expect me to revive a passenger in trouble, yet equally happy to haul me out of my seat as if I was a terrorist, or a drunk on a stag trip.

Perhaps I should give United the benefit of the doubt, and ascribe their PR fiasco to rank incompetence, or lack of staff training.

In which case, for his own incompetence, his warped sense of what it means to go above and beyond, and his unerring ability to keep digging once he fell into a hole, Mr Munoz should be rewarded with the supreme accolade for such qualities: a place in Donald Trump’s White House.

From → Business, Travel, USA

  1. In my experience, Asians have no less capacity for confrontation than individuals of any other ethnicity. I used to sell cameras in California. Many of my customers were Asian.

    Airlines do have the legal right to ‘bump” passengers. It’s in the fine print of every ticket contract. The big mistake in this incident was the airline trying to be so cheap, and not putting the transaction in the hands of a competent salesperson. I’ve been on overbooked flights where MUCH more was offered in compensation for volunteers to take alternate flights. If they had offered a couple thousand up front, upgraded tickets, a nice hotel suite and rental car, they would have gotten their volunteers.

    • You’re right on both counts of course. Re Asians, you find that out very quickly if you visit Hong Kong. “Asians is a ridiculous descriptor anyway. I was merely echoing the cod prejudices of the semi-ignorant! And yes, I’ve been bumped, though not with such cack-handedness. It would take less than you’ve suggested to persuade me to give up a seat on United or American. In fact it would be a relief! S

  2. What a beautifully composed piece! No, the ethnicity is not the issue to me (I wasn’t aware of it in the early reporting), but the constant testing of how far large institutions can go in bullying their small, individual constituents. Yes, I understand airlines have reasons for overbooking. Yes, I understand that they need to move their employees around. But the problem grew out of both institutional nonchalance about customers as individuals and institutional narcissism about institutional needs. If United was customer-focused, it would’ve had systems in place to be damn sure the wrong number of people didn’t get onto the plane in the first place. And the best way to create concern? $20K to any paid passenger who has to be taken off a plane. I think airlines might start getting a lot more careful about overbooking if the consequences hurt them, rather than the passengers.

    • Margo – many thanks for your comment, and well said! Another thought. You’re someone who, like me, has done a lot of travelling back and forth from the Middle East. Can you imagine the furore if the passenger-dragging had been performed on a Westerner on, say, a Qatar Airways flight? All kinds of demons would be let loose! S

      • Good heavens! I hadn’t followed the thinking all that way through. Other people’s racism is always so much more obvious than our own.

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