Friday, April 28, 2017

The United Viral Video - A Guide to the Situation

Do you ever see a commercial on television that is so disconnected with reality that cognitive dissonance sets in? What you are watching is so completely incongruous to your experience that it causing you confusion. An example of this is those Discover credit card commercials that claim that they are so pleasant to deal with that is like talking to an old friend. I had a Discover card for a short time and it was an awful experience. They had some of the worst customer service and the amount of junk mail, spam and telemarketing that I received increased astronomically. The card was accepted virtually no where. Their main source of revenue must be selling the names of their customers. They treat you like an old friend? Ya, maybe one that you severed ties with years ago because they're an asshole. So yes, I get confused by their commercials. It is so obviously a lie, like listening to Trump talk, I have to shake them off. Shudder! I have the same feeling when I see United Airlines slogan ... "Fly the friendly skies."

It almost seems like companies like Discover and United Airlines have to over-compensating for their biggest failings ... a lot like when Trump says, "No one treats ladies with more respect than me" or "Hispanics love me." We know they are lying. United's customer service is the worst of any airline I have flown on and I have heard even worse stories about them from friends. So when the viral video came out of the United passenger being removed from a flight, no one was surprised. No one that flies a lot anyway. I would stop using them, but when you live in an area with a small airport like I do (with only four airlines), often you don't have a lot of choices. Only four airlines service the Burlington airport. If I'm flying to Chicago, which I do often, I'm probably taking United.

If you are one of those people that has never flown or hasn't done it very often, you must be thinking "What the fuck!" when you saw this video. The rest of us feel that way also, but there is an explanation for this situation and it is not entirely United's fault. I, in no way, want to seem like I am apologizing for the United. I am a little tired of this story but now that the fervor has died down, I can see it with some perspective. Let's exercise this beast.

Why do airlines overbook? What is passenger bumping? Why is it a good thing? Airlines overbook their flights. This is for a good reason. Many passengers just don't show up for flights, whether it is traffic that made them late for a flight, they forgot about it, got lost on the way to the airport, got very sick and even, died. Overbooking prevents the plane from being empty or half empty when it flies. Operating a 747 is extremely expensive. If a flight is mostly empty and the plane or crew is not needed at the next airport, your flight is going to be cancelled. Keeping a flight reasonably full keeps costs down. This is one of the reasons flying is so much cheaper than it was decades ago. They'd fly a half empty plane and eat the cost. Airlines now are very good at predicting how many people aren't going to show up and they overbook accordingly. Usually it isn't a problem.

United Flight 3411 wasn't overbooked but it had no empty seats. This is only a problem if the airlines needs seats for their employees to get to another airport. In this case, there was a flight in Louisville, Kentucky that needed a crew, four people - pilot, navigator and two flight attendants. They needed to get from Chicago to Louisville for a flight leaving that airport. If there are no seats available, which isn't that rare, airlines look for volunteers to get bumped. Bumped means that you get placed on the next flight available to your destination, you don't have to pay for that flight because you already paid, you get offered a voucher for another flight and if you have to stay overnight, you usually get a hotel stay for free. A good deal! When I was younger and poorer, my wife and I used to do this intentionally. We ended up getting vouchers for our next vacation a number of times. United Flight 3411 offered a $400.00 voucher to their passengers while they were already boarded on the plane.  No one bit, so they offered a $800.00 voucher ... still no bites. It was at this point, that United does a lottery and forces people off the plane. Four people are chosen randomly.

As you can see, United's procedures for bumping passengers is awful. This is expected because pretty much every customer service experience I've ever had with United has been bad. Most airlines bump passengers when they are in the terminal at least an hour before the flight boards. Asking for volunteers after they have been settled into their seat is just dumb. Delta Airlines actually asks passengers when they check-in whether they are open to being bumped. Very smart! So if they need to bump someone, they seek the people who agreed to it already. I have not yet had a bad experience with Delta by the way. To go further as to how ridiculous United is, to tell someone they have to get off the plane after they have waited, boarded, squeezed their bag into the overhead and then settled into seat is just moronic. Why anyone thought this was a good idea I don't know. I'm surprised something like this hasn't happened before now.

Don't get me wrong, United is not 100% to blame for this situation. As F. Scott Fitzgerald says in The Great Gatsby, "it takes two to make an accident." The guy who got booted takes a lot of this blame. I won't use his real name, lets call him Dr. Douche Bag, for short Dr. Bag. Here are some thoughts about him:
      1) For one, when you are in an airport, especially post-911, when people in authority come up to you tell you to leave your seat, you get up and leave. Tensions are high in the airports, don't be defiant, don't be proud, say "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am" and do what you are told. Even if there is an injustice happening, which there wasn't, don't resist it, because if you don't, things are going to get worse and probably fast. People who work at airports are stressed out! Don't push them, if you do, then you are the problem, not them. This guy was flailing his arms and berating the police when they showed up. Not a good idea. They have enough shit they have to deal with than to deal with your shit.
       2) Dr. Bag was holding up a flight, when he resists leaving a plane means everyone is held up. Not just everyone on his flight. But everyone else down the line as well. The flight crew on your flight may have another flight, the extra flight crew definitely has another flight and the plane that you are may be needed for another flight. How selfish are you that you think your schedule should hold up all these people? Bummer! You were chosen in the random lottery. Adults deal with these things. Throwing a temper tantrum is not how adults deal with this situation.
        3) Dr. Bag claims that he has patients to see in the morning. Guess what? Everyone on that plane had something to do the next morning. That's why United was not able to get volunteers. Louisville is a four hour drive from Chicago. He could have rented a car and been home a short time after midnight. If he didn't want to drive, a bus from Chicago to Louisville is about seven hours trip. He could have napped on the bus and gotten home late and still seen patients in the morning. He could have spent the night in Chicago, at United's expense, gotten a voucher and caught the 7:35am flight the next morning that arrives in Louisville at 9:35am. He could have gotten most of his morning schedule in. 

Misnomers: Social media exploded after this incident. So much so that I really got sick of it. There were so many more important things happening including a couple of shootings and some innocent people killed by chemical weapons not too long before this incident. In the current political moment, the mobs that gather on social media love victims. One victim is easier to comprehend than hundreds or thousands, especially one caught on video.  Lets talk about what social media got wrong:
      1) This is not racist. Because he is from Chinese and Vietnamese descent, some have jumped to the conclusion that this is racism. That's right, whenever anything happens to anyone that isn't white, racism is the cause. But there is zero proof of this. Four people were chosen to leave the plane: Dr. Douche Bag, his wife and another couple. I have been googling like mad to find out what the race was of these three people but I have found nothing. I am willing to bet that the other couple is white, mostly because if they weren't, then everyone that is claiming racism would be using that as an example. I don't know the race of his wife, but please note, she left the plane quietly. United uses a computer generated algorithm that searches for the passenger manifest for people who don't have kids, don't have disabilities or connecting flights etc. So it isn't exactly random but it doesn't search for people with Asian last names either. I haven't looked at the code, but in my 20 plus years as a software engineer and analyst, I cannot imagine anyone writing code that searches for Asian people to be booted from planes. This is just nonsense, paranoia and grandstanding. It only goes to show how far our society has jumped the shark on this subject.
       2) The same people who are calling this racism are also stating that the doctor is 69 years old and shouldn't be asked to leave the plane. I find this ironic in that the people hopping on the racism wagon are being ageist. What? Because he's 69, he cannot be bumped from a plane?  Too frail to wander the airport? Really? Hillary Clinton is 69, Bernie Sanders is 75 and Donald Trump is 70 ... it seems that the nation is okay with a person in their 70's running the country ... but United is awful to bump a 70 year old from their flight.
       3) Social media gets a lot of things wrong, because people are ignorant often mouthing off about things they know nothing about. Often they don't read articles, only the headlines and respond emotionally. One of things I saw people saying was that it was United employees pulling this guy from his seat. This isn't true. They were O'Hare Airport police and there were four of them. These people are paid to keep everyone safe at the airport and I am glad they are there.
       4) He is bleeding, but he wasn't hit by the police. He was bleeding because he swung his arm, lost balance and fell hitting his head on the armrest. The images in the video are powerful but as usual, they don't tell the whole story.
       5) The title "doctor" commands a lot of respect. When people see a doctor being dragged from an airplane, they are bit more peeved than usual. But this doctor is well known to the locals of Louisville and not for being respectful. In 2005, he was found guilty of dealing drugs, trading drugs for sex and lost his license. He just gained his license back in 2015. So whether he needed to see patients in the morning ... maybe ... maybe not. But respectful doctor ... eh, probably not.

The short of it, if you are asked to get off a flight and you really need to be home the next day, well ... it is probably a good plan to get off the plane and rent a car, or take the early flight in the morning. Unless you are a media whore, that is probably your best bet to get home without the drama.

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