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Outrage Over United’s Treatment Of David Dao Is Our Anger At What Flying Has Become


“You take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of the relationship. That’s why I have never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship. Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘How come you never take me to the airport anymore?’” —Harry Burns, “When Harry Met Sally”

I love watching movies from the ’80s and ’90s to see how much life has changed. My kids can’t even imagine a world before cell phones. I tell them how I used to stand in line at the bank with my mom, quietly waiting while she withdrew money by writing a check for “cash.” If I behaved, I got the lollipop. Orange or red. Hopefully not green.

But this one line from “When Harry Met Sally” always takes me back to the days when flying was actually fun.

The airport used to be a magical place. It was almost as exciting to pick someone up from the airport as it was to be the traveler, watching each person emerge from the plane until, finally, a familiar face full of expectation and travel-weariness emerged, ready for hugs and kisses.

Standing by the window seeing the planes take off and land from places unknown filled me with expectation. In high school, my friends and I would go hang out there just to ride the trams between terminals—for fun. We were completely ignorant of the police state airports would become in the near future.

Well, It’s Not Fun Any More

Flying has always had unpleasant elements—awful food, ear pain, and middle seats, to name a few. Conditions have been declining for many years, but we can all agree that 9/11 introduced an adversarial tension. From that moment on, not only were we to contend with poor customer service, every one of us also got the honor of being treated as a potential national security risk.

It’s rather impressive what we will put up with for the privilege of traveling vast distances in short periods of time. Rudeness from customer service employees, removal of half our clothes before the body scan, and emptying our wallets to receive services that used to be included in the price of the airfare.

By the time we snap our seatbelts on, we’ve already been dealing with the airport experience for hours. We’ve stood in at least three different lines, one of which required us to remove our shoes and belts and “assume the position” inside a sci-fi scanning machine while our belongings get the same treatment. We count ourselves lucky if we make it through without losing our toothpaste or getting felt up.

Once we are allowed on the plane, we make our way down aisles that are way too narrow, jam our carry-ons in the stuffed overhead compartments, and secure ourselves in our miniscule seats, praying the guy in front of us doesn’t ever recline, sending the tray table into our ribs.

But don’t sit down on your wallet. You’re going to need it. United thinks you need to rent your headphones, your Internet, and maybe a really awful sandwich. They used to want you to pay for your peanuts and soda. They don’t do that anymore, but if they thought they could, they’d charge for the flotation device and the safety card.

Complaining Is All We’ve Got to Make Up for It

We were infuriated when security measures were increased. We were upset when airlines jammed more seats on the planes. We were irate when they started charging extra for our luggage. But while we soon settle back into complacency, our blood pressures remain elevated.

“Few things unite Americans like hatred of our major domestic airlines and their constant disregard for customers,” tweeted Brandon Groeny during the tweetstorm. He’s right. In a nation where we are increasingly divided about everything, we all can come together in our resentment of being treated like airport cattle. Complaining about flying is one of the only travel privileges we still have, and it is free.

Some of the other stresses that we endure: Lost and abused baggage; reservation errors; rude, unhelpful employees; and awful airline food. Until we are safe at our destination, we fully expect anything could go wrong. Most of the time, nothing happens, but there is an atmosphere of negativity we can’t shake until we are free of the airport.

When we saw the video of David Dao being dragged down the aisle of the plane, face bloodied, the travel rage we suppress found a voice. Each of us plods through the terminal with a certain level of fear and consternation. We already feel victimized or potentially victimized by each travel experience. Many of us saw that video and thought “there but for the grace of God go I.”

According to Listen First, a social media analysis firm quoted by in The New York Times, since this incident @United has had 1.2 million Twitter mentions and 135,000 interactions on their Facebook page. The reactions are full of irony, sarcasm, and anger—but mostly humor. When a business becomes a joke, that’s when they might really be in trouble.

Twitter followers have vented their disgust through creating new and humorous #unitedairlinesslogans.

Southwest Airlines flight attendants joined in with the fun, joking with passengers on aircraft about this viral photoshopped meme:

Southwest can afford to join in. Their customer satisfaction rates are very high, thanks in part to their refusal to charge extra for luggage.

If It Weren’t United, It Would Be Another Airline

United happened to be the airline that screwed up and drew the ire of the disgusted public. It could’ve just as easily been American Airlines or Delta Airlines, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t deserve it. The level of strain they’ve created meant that this was bound to happen. Those who have to endure the stress of travel have found a release, at least for a little while, and they will show no mercy.

Any of those three airlines could’ve been the one sitting in humiliation, watching their stock values plummet by $950 million in one day.

Despite some level of brand loyalty, the big three habitually populate the annual lists of “Worst Domestic Airlines,” though the only thing that prevents United from topping the list every year is when Spirit Airlines is allowed to sit at the same table with the big boys. Any of those three airlines could’ve been the one sitting in humiliation, watching their stock values plummet by $950 million in one day as the American public snapped after seeing overwhelming proof of the disrespect we continually feel.

The world watched in shock as a man got beaten, then watched United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, give one of those “legal apologies,” that says nothing, kind of like when a boyfriend says “I’m sorry you’re upset.” “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

The second effort was much better: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” he said. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

It would’ve been much better if the memo that he sent to employees didn’t contradict this, thanking them for dealing with the “belligerent and disruptive man” and telling them they went “above and beyond” in dealing with the situation, and assuring them he was standing by them.

When the third apology came, we weren’t buying it. By then, the general public remembered the times they have been brought to tears by rude employees, being nickle-and-dimed at every turn for subpar services, and being herded and confined like cattle.

Strangely enough, last month, Munoz received an award from PR Week for Communicator of the Year for his improving communications with employees and improving relations with customers.

“It’s fair to say that if PR week were choosing its Communicator of the Year now, we would not be awarding it to Oscar Munoz,” PR Week’s Editor in Chief Steve Barrett told Advertising Age.

Taking Him After He Was Seated Was the Unkindest Cut

Besides being appalled at the actual assault, we also cry foul. Dao was in his seat. He made it. He won.

We all know we can be stopped from boarding the plane when it’s overbooked, but it’s just not fair after someone is actually on the plane. We plop into our tiny little seats and put our seatbelts over our laps and think, “I made it. All that’s left is to get there.” If we don’t act like complete idiots before we taxi down the runway, we get to stay. If they were overbooked, they would’ve taken care of it at the gate. Those are the rules. That’s the way it works.

But no. That was a delusion. They broke the rules, and that’s not fair. They’re not only difficult to get along with, they are outright bullies. Now that they’ve done it, this will become the norm, too. We’ll be angry for a while. And then we’ll get used to it.

They know that.