The United Airlines Incident Is The Culmination Of Years Of Process Over People


How often have you had this experience: you have some issue with your phone or cable service that necessitates a phone call, and when you finally get a company representative on the line, almost before you can finish explaining the problem, the representative says something like “I’m sorry you are experiencing an outage, Mr. ____, I know how frustrating it can be to experience a problem with your service. I’d just like to take this time to reassure you that I will indeed do everything I can to help you fix this problem. Now, can I verify your desert island discs and mother’s maiden name?”

I suppose it’d be a nice sentiment if we hadn’t all heard the same one verbatim a thousand times before, and it wasn’t being read back to us with all the vocal inflection of a hostage reading a kidnapper’s manifesto. It’s meant to express empathy but does the opposite, sounding rote and automated, like a robot trying to learn to feel. It used to be I’d only hear spiels like this with massive, known-evil entities like Comcast or AT&T, but the phenomenon seems to be spreading. More and more it seems like this is just the way we train all employees — don’t think, just follow the script.

Just imagine the thought process that must’ve gone into creating such a script. Clearly, these companies were getting so many irate phone calls from their customers that they had to try to implement something to fix it. Tellingly, their solution wasn’t to hire more competent employees or, God forbid, improve their actual product. Instead, they almost certainly spent the money on some expensive management consultant, whose solution was simply to write them a new script. “I see the problem, you forgot to install the empathy chip! Here, let me just seat dongle A17 in rack slot GX-23… There. Now the customer anger should be neutralized.”

It’s this process of incremental dehumanization through adherence to process. We’ve been gradually conditioned to treat lower-level employees as disposable cogs and to expect less and less from them. It’s much easier (and more scalable!) to just tweak a script everyone follows rather than, you know, hire kinder, smarter people with common sense and give them the power to solve problems as they arise. Dr. David Dao getting dragged off of a United flight this week seems like a natural culmination of this kind of thinking, a complete breakdown in humanity seemingly caused by an inability to deviate from protocol.

United had overbooked the flight, (which is common practice to keep from throwing away money on empty seats, since flights generally have a few cancellations), but needed to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville. They offered $400 vouchers for travelers willing to take a later flight, also common practice. They received no takers, but inexplicably let the passengers board anyway. While the passengers were seated for takeoff, they continued upping the voucher amounts, to $800, then to $1,000. Still no takers. By the way, you know airports have become barely tolerable when people would turn down a thousand dollars rather than spend a few more hours there. Anyway, at that point, the airline started choosing people at random (it still won’t say exactly how, but here are some hints). Three of those chosen left begrudgingly and one, now a household name (with all the trappings that come with that), refused.

At that point, the airline employees still had a few viable options — pay to send the employees on another flight. Rent them a car. Choose someone else at random to replace the guy who was refusing to get off (if three out of the four people chosen at random agreed to go without incident, it would stand to reason that your odds would be pretty good on the fifth). But those are mildly creative solutions, and if you’re constantly having adherence to scripts and protocols drilled into your head, it’s more natural to think linearly rather than laterally. Problem with script? Proceed to the next script.

That next script they jumped to seems to be “passenger refusing to get off plane.” That one doesn’t take into account extenuating circumstances, like how many times that particular passenger might have gotten delayed that day, why he’s flying, what procedures United might have already screwed up to put them in this situation, etc. It’s designed to remove a problem, not identify one. The byproduct of this attempt to automate humans is that the company increasingly treats customers as a sort of binary — good customer or problem to be removed.

Once the “problem customer” had been identified, the next step was calling the airport cops. The airport cops, in turn, simply followed their own protocol, “remove unruly passenger.” You always hear law enforcement spokespeople say things like, “When in doubt, fall back on your training.” Okay, but what about a lifetime of common sense? The former often seems to negate the latter. Might you consider telling United to find another passenger to bump? Or explaining to the gate agents that you aren’t their personal bouncing service? Training is great, but it feels like we’ve inadvertently conditioned an entire generation not to trust intuition, empathy, or common sense.

If you’ll permit me to become Sports Analogy Guy for a second (I swear I never do this), it reminds me a lot of jiu-jitsu. If you take a few jiu-jitsu classes, you’ll learn a few moves, that you’ll then try to implement when you spar. As a novice, you know two or three situational positions, and you sort of have to just shove your opponent into those positions so that you can then implement the handful of moves you actually know. Someone more experienced knows 10 or 50 or a hundred different positions and the unknown space between them becomes a lot smaller. Thus, there’s less shoving. When I watch the video of police dragging David Dao off United Flight 3411, I see a group of novices trying to literally shove a guy into a position they know, even if that means bouncing an old man’s bleeding face off some arm rests while a plane full of children cries.

This feels a lot like what happens when you have an entire economy defined by low pay, high turnover jobs, and we imagine that everything is going to be fixed with automation or a better algorithm. What’s the use stressing common sense, problem-solving, and critical thinking if the workers are all just interchangeable, scalable, modular, outsourceable cogs? All the energy goes not towards hiring good people but creating an idiot-proof system. Even worse, this has been going on so long and lots of us are so used to it that there are now people who side with the machine. I don’t understand, why couldn’t the problem customer just be a good customer like the rest of us?

If there’s one thing I hope this incident disproves, it’s the myth that doing it this way is cheaper. United was willing to give away $4,000 to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville (how much would even four full-priced tickets on another airline have cost at that point?), and that was before they made national news becoming a buzzword for the uncaring corporation. Now, they’ve refunded an entire flight’s worth of tickets, their stock is down 1.1% (wiping out $255 million of market cap), and they’re facing a massive lawsuit. Was it worth it? Does it really cost more to train and retain good employees that you empower to make creative decisions than it does to hire consulting firms to write idiot-proof scripts for interchangeable monkeys? It’d be nice if this became a teachable moment, but let’s be honest, I doubt it will be. If the last 20 years of corporate decision-making are any guide, the takeaway from this won’t be better people, but better monkey trainers.

By the way, since I first complained about phone reps boredly reading their fake empathy scripts, my colleague Alan Sepinwall told me he always tells them they have his permission to go off script. It’s not fool-proof, but it works a lot of the time. Sometimes all it takes is knowing the magic words, I guess, and all of a sudden you can talk to a person again. If we could now just apply them to an entire industry.