When flying is a drag

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Flying is such a hassle now, and that’s a problem for a state that is thousands of miles from anywhere and relies on visitors. No one who understands Hawaii would be surprised how closely we’ve followed the debacle in Chicago where Republic Airways, operating as United Express, bumped five people from a Chicago flight so late-arriving United Express crew members could ride free to their work assignments in Louisville.

At virtually every stage of this affair, someone made it worse. It started with two underlying issues which create problems for airline employees every day: because planes cost a lot, airlines fly them as much as possible, with as little turnaround time as possible, so any delay can create a cascade of problems; and, because a single seat can make the different between profit and loss on a given flight, and people sometimes don’t show up, flights are overbooked, and if more people show up than there are seats, airlines literally pay passengers to give up their seats.

Delta paid people up to $1,300 not to fly as it canceled flights by the thousands following a freak storm in Atlanta. One family of three that lives near LaGuardia accepted bumping on three successive days (canceling their trip altogether on the third day) making $11,000. United paid $800 to passengers for not flying Chicago to Louisville. But not enough passengers were willing to do it. Some passengers were actually ordered off the plane. It was one of them who refused. Airport police were called, and dragged him down the aisle. In the process he fell, police said, so his mouth was bleeding. But you know this. You saw one of two videos shot by other passengers. Airport police are investigating. One officer is on paid leave.

United Airlines did not initially throw either police or United Express under the bus, nor did it initially reveal that the passengers were ordered off not for other paying passengers but for airline employees deadheading to a shift assignment in Louisville, who arrived so late for the flight that gate personnel had already filled the seats. USA Today’s travel writer said, United made $2 billion last year; it couldn’t find another way to get those employees to Louisville?

It didn’t help that United initially used the term “volunteer” concerning people who were ordered off the plane, including, apparently, the guy who was dragged off. not necessarily kicking but definitely screaming.

CEO Oscar Munoz used the term “reaccommodate” to describe forcing people to take a later flight. There was nothing accommodative about what happened. Even the deadheading crew members, who were accommodated, did not have a commodious flight: they had to listen as other passengers told them they should be ashamed to work for the airline. Reaccommodate is an industry term all the airlines use, and after years of using it, it no longer sounds to employees like BS, but to civilians it still does. I’m a little surprised, though, that Munoz, who until the past year was a railroad man, didn’t get that.

The passenger dragging, the Delta meltdown after a freak storm hit Atlanta, and computer crashes at all the major airlines, combine to teach us many lessons, if we are sensitive to them:

  1. If you don’t budget for plenty of spare aircraft, budget for big payments to passengers after meltdowns, because meltdowns you will have, and good will you will need.
  2. If you use computers, you will have crashes, and that, too, needs to be planned for, no matter how confidently the senior VP for IT assures you it will never happen. IT people are great optimists and they always think everything will be fine.
  3. Paying a lot more to “reaccommodate” bumped passengers is worth it compared to the alternative, and if it creates a cadre of fliers who look for opportunities to delay flying and cash in, that is operationally not a bad thing.
  4. Never, never play down a bad situation when there are scads of witnesses with smart phones to prove your pants are ablaze. A poor choice of words will be seized on by people who want someplace to put their righteous anger.

 

 

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