Commentary

United Airlines saga: Consumers can put up with only so much

It's been a harrowing week for United Airlines after a viral 33-second video of a bloodied 69-year-old passenger being dragged down an aircraft aisle sparked global outrage.

Later identified as an American of Vietnamese origin, Dr David Dao was forcibly removed from the aircraft so that airline staff could take his seat. United's image and share price have since both taken a tumble. Questions also cropped up, including whether the airline had a legal right to remove the passenger.

It is now a well-known fact that airlines sell more tickets than there are seats, since there are always no-shows. The common, accepted practice means there is always a risk of being bumped off, which airlines typically compensate passengers for in cash or in kind, or both. But on Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, which Dr Dao was booked on, passengers were asked to disembark to accommodate staff, not other paying customers. Technically, it was not a case of overbooking, some experts say.

The latest twist is United pilots claiming that the whole thing was not even the airline's fault. They say the maligned flight was a United Express service - an airline owned by United Airlines but operated by Republic Airways. "No United employees were involved in the physical altercation," the pilots said in a statement. "This violent incident should never have happened and was a result of gross excessive force by Chicago Department of Aviation personnel.

"Social media ire should properly be directed at the Chicago Aviation Department," the pilots added. With United almost certain to face a lawsuit, the courts will decide what's true, what's not and whose fault it was. But for the billions of air travellers a year, the drama has reaffirmed what many already know - that flying, especially in cattle class, is increasingly a pain.

Getting on an airplane used to be such a treat that people dressed up for it. Of course, seats were also more expensive then and, hence, more exclusive.

With so many budget carriers these days and full-service airlines under pressure to cut fares to compete, travel has become cheaper so more people can fly, which is great. The unfortunate flip side is that the travel boom which has come when the skies are less secure post-9/11, has made flying a stressful experience for many. Long check-in, immigration and security queues; and restrictions that often vary at different airports on what can be carried in hand and checked bags, are the norm for many travellers.

To add to the distress, travellers often feel short-changed when airlines, after advertising a fare, start charging for everything from a credit card fee for ticket bookings, and choice of seats, to checked-in bags. In 2014, a professor at New York's Columbia Law School Tim Wu, coined the phrase "calculated misery" to explain the decline in the quality of airline service.

He said: "In order for fees to work, there needs to be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as calculated misery. Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that's where the suffering begins."

Championed by budget airlines, unbundling services - only to later charge for every add-on - has caught on with many full-service airlines, with US carriers leading the way. A growing number of full-service airlines already charge customers for picking seats in advance - which used to be part of the airfare. While many Asian carriers are resisting, unwilling to risk tainting their image, Singapore Airlines, for example, has a charge for what it calls "preferred" - for instance, emergency exit - seats, which have more legroom.

When calls were made to ban overbooking after the United incident, the International Air Transport Association , which represents global carriers, warned that "fares would likely rise as airlines would have to pass on the costs of more empty seats to consumers". The message is clear: You get what you pay for.

Still, there is only so much consumers can, and should, put up with and being dragged down the aisle is not on that list.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Consumers can put up with only so much'. Print Edition | Subscribe