United Airlines passenger mistreatment strikes a nerve

Commentary

One of the most-read recent articles on BizTimes.com was a short blog written by Dennis Ellmaurer, president of Milwaukee-based Central File Inc. and a TEC chair.

In his piece, “Industry insider refused to fly on United Airlines,” Ellmaurer told the story of hosting PeopleInk president Ann Rhoades, a former airline industry executive, who was speaking to his TEC group.

During her visit, Rhoades mentioned having trouble booking a flight out of Milwaukee. Her choices were limited, and the only airline providing direct service to her next destination was United Airlines.

Rhoades said she refused to fly United because “unhappy people make mistakes.”

“It appears Ms. Rhoades was on to something,” Ellmaurer wrote.

Indeed. Unless you have been living under a rock, you no doubt have heard all about the now-infamous United flight from Chicago to Louisville. United had some crew members who needed to get on the flight. Volunteers were sought to get off the plane, in exchange for cash. Lacking enough volunteers, one passenger was selected at random to be removed from the flight. The passenger refused and was dragged off the plane by airport security. Videos of the incident, shot by other passengers, went viral.

Massive outrage was expressed by the public, reflecting just how frustrated many are with the customer service experience during commercial air travel.

Making matters even worse were statements from United Airlines chief executive officer Oscar Munoz. In his initial statement, Munoz said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

The public reaction to that was widespread ridicule. Then, in a statement sent to employees, Munoz said, “our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” That’s a terrifying admission.

Finally, two days after the incident, his tone changed.

“We take full responsibility and we will work to make it right…I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again,” Munoz said.

Since then, Munoz has continued to apologize and promise to improve procedures.

That’s great, but something is missing. Nobody is promising to stop the practice of overbooking flights.

I realize that it is very expensive to fly an airplane across the country. Airlines need to generate as much revenue as possible for their business to be viable. When seats are left open, even though the ticket was sold, it’s a missed revenue opportunity.

I’m sure the airlines will say if they stopped overbooking flights, they would have to raise the ticket prices to make up for that lost revenue.

Nevertheless, there has to be a better way. People traveling on airlines have made plans and asking them to get off the plane, even if they are well compensated, is a major inconvenience and is really a turn-off for the travel experience. That’s not how you want customers to feel, but the airlines keep doing this.

This incident reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry reserves a rental car, but when he goes to pick it up, the car isn’t there.

“Unfortunately, we ran out of cars,” the agent tells him.

“But the reservation keeps the car here,” Jerry says. “That’s why you have the reservation.”

“I know why we have reservations,” says the agent.

“I don’t think you do,” says Jerry. “If you did, I’d have a car.”

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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