I wanted my blog to be mostly about writing and literature, and not about politics or general news. But from time to time events affected me to a point that I felt compelled to write about them. Since I started blogging last fall, I wrote once about the Women’s March in Washington DC, and three times about immigrants and undocumented aliens.
Now something else touched me to the core: the unfortunate and disgusting episode with an innocent passenger in Chicago being dragged off a United Airlines plane.
How was that possible? Why?
Since it occurred, and after a sea of well-deserved public outcry, there were apologies from the United CEO — as if we were naïve enough to believe him — , an attempt by a Maryland politician to marginally change the rules (something to do with people not being cargo), and even several articles trying to justify the airlines’ policy called ‘involuntary denial of boarding.’
“We overbook because some people cancel at the last minute, and this is a way to maximize profits,” the airlines say. “Profit is king.” Silly me, I thought the customer was.
“It’s legal,” they say. “Congress allows it.” Oh, Congress, I see!
“Unfortunately, from time to time we have to bump a passenger,” the airlines say. “For instance, in order to transport the crew.”
“When you buy your ticket,” they say, “you sign a contract that guarantees you’ll be taken from point A to point B, but it doesn’t guarantee when.”
I say this is terrible. Congress should change the rules. Now!
My wife and I have experienced being involuntarily denied boarding by the same airline, on a flight overseas. We were travelling to Romania for my book launch. Our one week business trip was shortened by a full 36 hours, our luggage (that had been loaded on the original plane) got lost, and our connecting flight in Europe was messed up. The airline paid us compensation that didn’t do anything to alleviate our frustration, anger, and the profound sense of injustice
In retrospect, I admit, they didn’t break my teeth!
The other day I went to a hardware store to buy some WD-40. They were out of it, and sold me a different product, an oil called 3-In-One. “It does the same thing,” the salesperson told me. “Try it, but hold old on to your receipt. If you’re not satisfied, bring it back, and we’ll refund you the money. No questions asked.” “Hmm,” I said to myself. “I’ll break the seal off the bottle, use as much of this product as I need, and then, if I choose, I can get my money back. Sweet!”
Millions of people order and return merchandise for full refunds all the time. How is it possible? Is the customer king?
Well, the cost of returns is part of the price.
Why can’t the airlines do the same? Why can’t they keep several seats reserved for emergencies, or crew, or for whatever other reason, and sell them at the last moment at discounted prices? Why can’t they create a tier of tickets that are cheaper but are clearly designated as possibly to be denied? At least you know for a fact that you are or are not going to be subjected to the whim of some mysterious algorithm which will determine if you fly that day or not.
The airlines argue the policy is necessary to keep prices low. “Consumers demand it,” they say. Let’s do some math.
I read recently that approximately 48,000 passengers were denied boarding last year. I also read there were about 400 million commercial flights in the US. That means that one tenth of 1 percent of the passengers are denied boarding. It doesn’t seem much, but it is awfully humiliating to those to whom it happens against their will. Now, if the airlines make a profit of one billion (with a B) in a year, and lose the sale to those who otherwise would be denied boarding, the airlines would make one million dollars less in profit. Divide one million by 400 million, and the resulting fare increase would be 25 cents.
Even if I am wrong by a factor of one hundred, the incremental difference (and the eventual corresponding price increase) is laughable. How many passengers would oppose it? Not many, I guess.
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