In 1965, United Airlines introduced its famous slogan: “Fly the friendly skies.” The man who led the agency that coined the phrase explained: “Let us show the public our warm ‘good-guy’ genuine concern side, as well as the efficient side they already appreciate in us.”
A slogan may just be a slogan, but at the time, at least, it represented a promise. United would strive to be humane, and make flying, intrinsically stressful, a warm experience.
It is, by now, safe to say that the promise has been broken. The capstone was this week’s brutal and bloody eviction of David Dao, a paying customer, for the sin of wanting to remain in the seat that he had paid for. But the airline has been on an inhumane trajectory for quite some time. That’s why this week’s catastrophe will not be fixed by increasing the eviction fees offered to customers, or by figuring out some other means of removing people from airplanes with less violence.
The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. But the overload and discrimination are a toxic combination; the human costs, to state the obvious, have become apparent.
United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. Combined with Continental, United became the world’s largest airline—and vastly more profitable. But it led, in the short term, to a giant mess, forcing the carrier to adopt ever more extreme policies, transforming it into industry leader in the abandonment of basic decency.
Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. (Delta and American executed their own mergers with similar goals.) United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces. In retrospect, the Justice Department’s rapid approval of this and other airline mergers, without more safeguards or consumer protections, was a serious error.
Moreover, the early years of the merger didn’t go as planned. Combining two huge companies created a level of chaos that punished employees, passengers, basic operations, and also profits—the kind of ongoing “consumer sinkhole” common after massive mergers. The 2015 resignation of United CEO Jeff Smisek, after accusations that he’d agreed to bribe Newark’s airport officials (the Port Authority), was symbolic of a flailing airline. United’s failure to deliver its promised profits made it only more willing to neglect the promises of humane treatment that it made to public back in 1965.
That push for profit yielded increased fees for baggage and reservation changes (following industry-wide trends), and unprecedented segmentation between regular and elite customers. While it has always differentiated between business and economy fliers, post-merger United took its complex caste system to new levels.
For its very highest-paying Global Services customers, United layered on the benefits: segregated gate agents, dedicated phone lines; short or skipped security lines: in sum, the complete avoidance of the crowds everyone else deals with. Meanwhile, United took away services at the bottom, shrinking seats, imposing punitive fees, removing pre-boarding for parents with children, and increasing the numbers of boarding classes.
Overcrowding, poor treatment, and invidious discrimination form a toxic combination.
United hasn’t finished yet. Its latest innovation, introduced this year, is not any improvement to customer service, but “basic” fares—tickets without assigned seats, that put the holder into the very-last boarding group, and also ban carry-on baggage. There might well be something to be said for such an offering if it meant lower prices. Unfortunately, as travel expert Gary Leff explains, United’s revenue projections make clear that the “basic” fares will be sold at the same prices economy used to be. The profit comes from not from offering something new, but the premise that people will pay extra to avoid the poor treatment. It is a textbook example of “calculated misery”—profiting from people’s fear of suffering.
The overcrowding, poor treatment, and invidious discrimination are a combustible combination. While this week’s fiasco was an extreme example, incidents of “air rage” have become a regular part of flying. In a 2016 study, researchers Katherine DeCelles and Michael Norton demonstrated that just knowing someone is getting special treatment can cause problems. “Physical inequality on airplanes—that is, the presence of a first class cabin—is associated with more frequent air rage incidents in economy class,” they wrote. It is a testament to the public’s manners and self-control that incidents do not happen more often.
It is instructive to compare the United Airlines of 1965 with that of 2017. Judging by its balance sheet, and in the view of Wall Street, United is now a vastly better company. But in the ways that really matter, it is not. In the 2016 JD Power customer satisfaction survey, United ranked last among legacy airlines; among all airlines, only budget carrier Frontier scored worse. The perception of its passengers (except the elite and ultra-elite fliers) range from distrust and resignation to anger and disgust.
Nor does United seem better for its employees, who used to own the airline, but are now stuck enforcing cruel and arbitrary rules, and assessing the punitive fees. They are cast as wardens, trying to keep unruly passengers in line.
In short, United Airlines has become a case study of an operation that just seems to produce more losers than winners, more generalized suffering than ought be necessary—and all for what? United’s executives earn good money, but it is hard to imagine that they can feel proud of the monster they have created.
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