What Do Our Airlines Owe Us? And What Do We Owe Them Back?

You want to see people angry? Like really, truly seething? Give them a story that exists where air travel and abuse of power intersect. Give them ordinary folks trying to get from point A to point B, pitted against flight personnel enacting brittle policies. Give them kids with leggings, awkward pat downs, and YouTube stars speaking Arabic. Then watch as their collective disdain for the entire aviation industry pours forth across social media.

Airlines greet us when we’re at our worst — the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the tempest-tossed travelers, racing between connections. Then they offer up similarly agitated humans to assert protocols that are muddled at best. It’s not a shock that we have so many airport-related dramas, it’s a shock that we have so few.

Sometimes, our shared rage at this treatment seems to outpace the issue at hand — we accuse TSA agents of pedophilia as casually as we accuse baggage handlers of tossing our suitcases around. Sometimes it exists in a murky gray area, as it did when YouTuber Adam Saleh was ejected from a plane for either “speaking Arabic” as he claimed, or “being disruptive” as the airline asserted. Then there are times when our anger seems fully justified, like yesterday when a United Airlines passenger was dragged off of a plane by law enforcement when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight.

Looking at the United video, it’s not too difficult to understand why the public generally hates airlines.The agenda of these companies is to maximize dividends and they often do so at the expense of passengers. This has been exacerbated by the fact that the industry is an oligopoly, with four major players owned by the same few power-wielding stakeholders. In pursuit of profits, these giant, consumer-facing brands can seem terribly rigid or devoid of compassion.

“Flying,” we grumble, as the person in front of us jams his seat into our kneecaps, “is the fucking worst.”

But though the airlines rarely seem in a hurry to do us any favors, there are still important questions to ask of ourselves as we “partake in the miracle of human flight,” namely: What do we want from our carriers? What do they want from us? And where do these two competing interests overlap?

From United Airlines “Rule 25” in their Contract of Carriage

Regardless of what we find out about United flight 3411, it’s clear that the conflict was borne out of a disagreement over the “contract of carriage.” United, like every other airline, has us sign a whole bunch of rights away when we buy our tickets. One of these is the right to actually travel, if the flight is oversold. Let’s hold off on the “oversold” proviso for just one second and note this: Virtually all service provider contracts have some sort of rip chord cancellation clause embedded in them. Musicians pull out of shows, cruises return to port due to storms, life happens. So signing away a “guarantee of travel” isn’t too strange.

What we, the passengers, are fuming about is how the rules on this matter were applied. Rule 25 in United’s Contract of Carriage actually makes it very clear what happened on flight 3411. The man was chosen because of his “fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.” It damn sure wasn’t random and United didn’t make concessions for the man’s desperate desire to stay on the plane.

Why not? Because airlines are run off of a class system. Boarding groups, mileage status, fare restrictions — they sort us by our value and, when needs be, winnow us using these same categories. Make no mistake: The man pulled off of the plane (in brutal fashion, mind you) was the lowest class passenger on the entire flight, according to whatever algorithm United uses to decide such things.

It’s also worth noting that the ordeal on UA 3411 would have ended the split second a single human on the flight stood up and said, “Wait! This person seems like he really has to go somewhere urgently, I’ll take an $800 voucher plus hotel credit and allow myself to be bumped.” No one did that, even when they all knew they could (the flight staff had literally walked the aisle asking people to do so).

Instead, the system worked as it was designed, which is to say: heartlessly. The passenger “declined to leave” (in the clunky words of United CEO Oscar Munoz), and the flight staff asked for security support.

The trouble with this is that this capitalist approach often seems to be what we, the passengers, want. After all, it was the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act that now allows us to travel to Iceland for $48 each way. But when situations go sideways, we quickly Tweet the need for something more egalitarian. “We’re all in this journey together!” we chant (while never considering offering up our seats).

Maybe we’re raging hypocrites, or perhaps we’re just ignorant of all the rights we gave up when we bought our tickets. Even airlines bumping fliers, a situation which only happened to .62 of every 10,000 passengers in 2016, are covered by Contracts of Carriage. It sucks, but it’s in there. And why do oversold flights exist at all? To make sure that no seat goes underutilized, to help drive costs down, because that’s what the open market has demanded.

The United situation reveals the biggest problem facing the entire airline industry: It’s time to decide what sort of system we’re running. If airlines are completely capitalistic, then United chose the right man to take off the plane. After all, he was the customer of least value to the airline according to company policy.

If, on the other hand, airlines are micro-communities where everyone is equal, then 1) someone should have gotten off the plane before this man, who was literally willing to fight tooth and nail to get to his destination, or 2) all passengers should have been drawn straws to decide who had to get bumped.

Currently, every indicator is that we, as consumers, want it all ways. We cringe outwardly when airlines charge overweight passengers for a second seat, but complain inwardly when the size of a fellow passenger encroaches on our limited personal space. We use flight aggregators to find the cheapest possible tickets, but mock those seats for their lack of leg room and amenities. We invite the airlines to sort us into an ever-broadening range of “classes” to reflect where we land on the “money vs quality of experience” scale, then get angry when our tickets leave us vulnerable to reckless treatment.

What’s the remedy? Well, our infatuation with capitalism doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so if we want to create a more egalitarian airline we’ll have to vote with our dollars. If United’s PR nightmare and pursuant fallout offer any indication, the future will be dominated by companies with the smarts policies — well-worded and empathetically-administered. They’ll be as compassionate as possible, invest in extra training, and take full responsibility when flights are oversold.

Federal aviation law required United to offer at least 200% of the ticket price ($400) to their bumped passengers, but there is no federal max to what airlines can offer (United lists a 400% max but that’s self-determined). Imagine the great story all around if one of the flight attendants had gotten on the intercom and increased the voucher in $25 increments until a hand finally shot up. We know that no one took the voucher (willingly) at $800, what would have happened at $1200? That’s a flight to Europe. $2000? A family of four can cross the country for that.

This choice would have taken far less time, cost the company far less money, and allowed the CEO to sound like far less of a iron-hearted android. So would sticking the crew members who needed to get to Louisville for a flight the next morning in an Uber. By choosing the nuclear option, United followed the letter of their internal law, a law which was based on the capitalistic mindset that we have long cosigned for our airlines. It was dumb of them and has already cost them dearly. Capitalism — as UA discovered — has its limits, and with travelers wanting it all ways the airlines that accommodate our competing desires the most effectively are the ones that will succeed.

Rest assured, every carrier in the world will show the United Airlines video at their next training meeting and try to come up with “best practices” for how to handle similar situations. Then they’ll make changes and tweak their own versions of Rule 25. More training, more freedom for flight staff to increase vouchers, more emphasis on humanity and less on policy — these things will cost money. Some of those costs will be passed on to us.

Which leaves one last question: When that time comes, are we prepared to pay a little more to ensure ourselves a kinder, gentler flight?