When the images of a bleeding passenger being dragged off a United Express flight began to surface, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be good for United. But I don’t think anyone expected it to erupt into the global rallying cry that it’s become. United’s missteps clearly poured gas on this fire, but there’s more going on here. Years and years of pent-up anger aimed at airlines is being released, and it’s not pretty.
The severity of the situation really dawned on me last Thursday as I sat in an interview with a local Fox reporter. We started talking about the Chicago Aviation Police, and that’s when it hit me. Over the last few years, police violence has been a hot-button issue. It has spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, and it has polarized people around the country. And here was a textbook example of what people have been rallying against… a defenseless, older minority was dragged off an airplane by the police, and he was severely injured (though not killed, fortunately) in the process. You would have thought this would have ignited another round of vitriol aimed at the police, but no. Everyone blamed United. The Chicago Aviation Police even suspended officers over this, but nobody seems to care. It’s all about United, and that really says a great deal about just how much people hate airlines.
There are a lot of reasons why this is the case, but while you can spread blame around, much of it lies with the airlines themselves, specifically primarily the big 3 legacy carriers (American, Delta, United). Case-in-point, when I was talking with that Fox reporter, she was clearly angry. So I asked her what she hated most. She said it was being charged “$20 for a blanket” or for peanuts. It was that whole nickel-and-diming thing. But, as I’ve written here many times, I think this model makes sense (even more sense as a bundled fare family, like JetBlue has done). But the airlines were so desperate to grab cash back when the housing crisis began and oil spiked that they slapped that first checked bag fee on without giving it a second thought. Most fees have been added in that fashion, and the customer experience was never a serious part of the equation. Thanks to such a botched rollout of the a la carte model, the airlines never had a chance of getting people on their side. People don’t trust the airlines, and we’re now at the point where every misstep, big or small, helps as a proof-point to strengthen those anti-airline beliefs.
I watched this United issue snowball last week, and found myself feeling frustrated. Sure, the way the airline stumbled through the handling of this mess was part of it. But the bigger concern is that I don’t see a quick fix for the root problem here. It’s not clear there’s any fix at all.
I thought back to a previous flashpoint, when scores of passengers found themselves stuck in an airplane on the tarmac for hours and hours on end on multiple occasions. There was a tremendous outcry then, but there was also a clear mission. They wanted to make sure nobody ever got stuck on the tarmac for that long again. Though we can argue whether the end solution was the right one, people rose up, took that to the government, and pushed for a regulatory solution. It worked. Today, tarmac delays almost never happen thanks to the will of the people, but this situation is different.
The crux of the problem is that there is no single, clear goal here. It feels more like the Occupy Wall Street movement where people are mad, but everyone has a different reason for feeling that way. That Fox reporter was mad at a la carte pricing, but others are mad about delays. Some are fed up with surly employees. My wife remains livid at the mess of a boarding process. This is different because there is no one fixable problem. It’s just a general loathing, and there isn’t a silver bullet. People just want the airlines to be better than they are.
Can they do that? Well they’re trying. Flush with reasonable profits instead of the razor-thin margins (often negative) they’ve lived off of for years, airlines in the US are investing in their products. It’s now fairly normal to get free video content and free snacks when those were far from the norm just a couple years ago. And this stability also makes it a better work environment for employees. That should result in better service.
But while airlines have started to improve, they’ve also introduced product changes people instantly dislike, including Basic Economy and the decision to add more seats to airplanes. There may be rational justification for these moves, but they don’t play well publicly. Two steps forward, one step back. Or maybe it’s one step forward and two steps back. Either way, any improvement is met by the public with skepticism as people wait for the next axe to fall.
In the short run, we’re going to see (and already have seen) some changes because of this latest mess. Delta raised the limits on how much its employees can offer to get volunteers off an airplane when needed. American has pledged not to take a confirmed customer off an airplane again just to let another passenger on. And United, which will be making more changes after it finishes its review, is requiring crews to be booked at least an hour before departure on full flights so that the exact situation we just saw occur is never repeated.
But frankly, these are all small potatoes. It is incredibly rare to have to pull someone off an airplane after boarding. This might be great for the few that it helps, but it does not deal with the seething rage coming from the masses.
The big 3 airlines have spent years trying to turn themselves into viable businesses, but decisions were often made without really thinking about the customer. And that tone-deafness has caused a slow-simmering reaction that is now bubbling to the surface in a very palpable way. Like I said, there are no easy solutions here.
Now that the big 3 airlines have transformed their business models, maybe it’s time for them to take a break. No more “innovating,” or whatever their corporate speak proclaims, for awhile. It’s time to turn inward and scrutinize the business with an eye on the customer. Start repairing the broken relationships now and work toward building long-term trust and respect.