United's passenger-beatings are a feature of its business, not a bug

In a world where the airlines record-smashing profits comes from a small number of increasingly luxurious first-class seats, the entire focus of the industry is on figuring out how to convince just a few marginal customers to spend more for one of those profit-centers instead of deadheading in coach.

There are two ways to do this: one is to make first class more luxurious, and this is definitely underway with new beds, linens, check-in procedures, baggage handling, TSA special treatment, and more.

But the other part of the strategy is to make coach worse. A lot worse.

So bad that people who aren't paying for their own tickets -- like spouses, employees or consultants -- simply refuse to go somewhere unless someone (else) springs for the ticket. The amount of benefit (from taking the trip) that these marginal passengers are willing to forgo needs to be matched and exceeded by the amount of pain from flying in coach.

The airlines can't control how badly you want to get somewhere, but they have total control over how awful getting there can be. The airline might not actively plan to have its passengers beaten unconscious in coach, but they're not interested in preventing it, and the "usual" procedure is so hostile and authoritarian that it normalizes such beatings to the extent that a bunch of temporarily embarrassed millionaires write it off as unremarkable.

In a competitive market, this wouldn't be a problem: airlines that punished customers for choosing coach would lose their business to nicer airlines. But aviation is not competitive, it's an oligopoly where anti-trust exemptions have allowed the industry to concentrate into just a few carriers who often don't compete on routes, meaning that getting from A to B often leaves you with just one choice. To paraphrase Lily Tomlin: "we're the aviation monopoly, we don't have to care."

This, in turn, is an epiphenomena of the Thomas Piketty apocalypse: an ever-tinier slice of the population controls an ever-growing proportion of the world's wealth, so entire industries become obsessed with selling super-premium products to a highly select group of customers: we have a glut of luxury penthouses (safe deposit boxes in the sky that are primarily treated as investments) and a shortage of affordable housing (used as shelter). We have politicians who spend 50% of their working hours calling up 1%ers and begging for money, and then deliver policies that screw everyone except the donor class.

Don’t mistake me. There are a lot of other things you can take away from this sorry event. There is the increased militarization of American life, with authorities reacting to common disputes in increasingly aggressive ways. There is a positive lesson, too, in that ordinary Americans have access to more potential publicity — and, hopefully, recourse — than ever before, courtesy of social media. Finally, there is a narrative of privilege at play. More than a few pointed out this contretemps would likely not have received as much attention if the unwilling passenger were poor or African-American. Others noted that the doctor, who is Asian-American, might have been treated differently by officers or airline staff if he were white.

But this isn’t an either-or situation. Yes, we can tell people who perceive themselves as privileged to get used to the second-class treatment those poorer than them have been receiving for a long time. But it seems like a better bet, both ethically and for the sake of our futures, to improve conditions for all.

United Airlines Is Not Alone [Helen Olen/New York Times]

(via Naked Capitalism)

Notable Replies

  1. I fly fairly regularly for my job. Usually I take Delta because they have the best overall service and you don't have to pay that much more. Usually, the client pays for my T&L and I book the flight I want on the airline I want, within reason. Well, recently I did a project for a big Fortune 500 company and I had to go through their travel agency. They put me on an economy class seat on United. The way there (Austin to Anchorage) wasn't too bad. On the way back, I got on the flight from Anchorage to Denver and I was surprised to find I did NOT fit in the seat. My knees needed about three more inches of space to be able to sit in a normal position in the seat. First time this had ever happened to me in 25 years of flying for business. I had no choice but to contort myself and squeeze into the seat as best I could. Since it was a redeye flight, I fell asleep in a really bad position, twisted like a pretzel for six hours.

    I made it home the rest of the way no problem. Next day I woke up with leg pain, shortness of breath. I wound up in the hospital with a deep vein thrombosis and a pulmonary embolism -- a clot that had broken off and landed in the upper lobe of my right lung. Luckily for me I didn't kick, but I'm on clot busting drugs for six months, I get really tired and fatigued, and still have pain in my back and leg periodically. The back pain was so bad on my last business trip (lots of walking around at a trade show) that I had to call it quits a day early. I missed a presentation I was supposed to give.

    My legal recourse with United is zip from what I have found, The fine print on the ticket absolves the airline from any liability regarding DVT and PE. I have spoken to half a dozen attorney firms in the area, nobody wants to touch it. Needless to say I pony up the cash and fly economy comfort now, which costs up to 30 percent or more versus a coach class ticket. Basic economy seats will literally kill me!!

  2. First class is no guarantee of fair treatment on United either. I wasn't beaten or anything, so it's just going sound like whining compared to the shit some people have been through.

    I stopped flying United years ago. The final straw was when I had bought a first class ticket for a Christmas flight because there was no room in economy.

    But when I showed up for my flight, apparently my connecting flight was cancelled and a new one was scheduled to go 30 minutes later and everyone from the cancelled flight was being rebooked to it. They then tell me that first class was full on this new flight. They said unless I wanted to "wait for days" until they could book me on the next available first class seat, I'd better accept an economy seat with no compensation. Just wanting to get home I acquiesced.

    I caught them in the lie when I got to the gate of the connecting flight, and I noticed that all 8 first class seats were given away as frequent flyer upgrades. I knew that from the monitor by the gate letting the nine people who requested upgrades who got to sit in the otherwise empty first class. An empty first class in spite of being told that every first class seat on every plane for the next several days was taken on this leg of the trip.

    I don't care that I flew economy, I do that all the time, but to get boned out of an expensive seat I paid for so they could give it away to a preferred customer irked me to no end. And now I see things are just beginning to get worse. Good riddance.

  3. Where's Batman when you need him

  4. Hm. May I enquire how tall you are, and what sex (not gender identity)? I'm 175cm, but that's from very long legs. My 185cm brother can re-park my car without having to adjust the seat, although he'd want it back another notch if he were to drive it any distance. Even as a skinny teenager it was obvious I had "child-bearing hips".

    And all this has bearing because I have never, ever, been comfortable in economy, not since my first flight at age 13 when I was already my adult height.

    Early airline seats were based on those for military aircraft -- designed for thin, narrow-hipped men who were no taper than 178cm (and probably shorter). Since then some airline's seats have actually got smaller.

    People live to bitch about sitting beside large adults on flights, but I didn't ask for the body I'm in. I do ask to be comfortable if I'm going to pony up hundreds of dollars, though.

    And for all the "so take the train" types -- if I'm on a plane, chances are I'm going overseas. Someday I may actually find a transatlantic cruise just for the experience, but that's not exactly regular travel anymore.

  5. You monster.

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