UA is not alone in treating customers with contempt

United Airlines (UA) found itself at the centre of social media controversy this week, after a horrifying video of a doctor being forcibly removed from a coach-class seat on one of its planes went viral. The man was, according to published reports, randomly selected to be bumped off because the airline needed to transport four employees on the sold-out flight. The doctor refused to leave, airline officials called law enforcement, and security dragged him, bloodied, off the plane.

It seemed, in the way these viral sensations frequently do, to capture something about the way we live now. All too often we feel powerless, both politically and economically. A 2015 Gallup poll found large majorities of Americans agreeing with statements like Congress "is out of touch with average Americans" and "focused on the needs of special interests".

So what's this got to do with United? Well, most of us don't encounter the government on a daily basis. We do, however, live life as consumers. And our treatment is both increasingly disrespectful and reflective of our society's growing income divide.

In 2017, it often seems that the customer is the least important part of the transaction - unless he or she is paying top, top dollar. Take medical care. While the wealthy can turn to the growing practice of concierge medicine, where for a fee of over US$1,000 (S$1,400) annually, their personal doctor will always return their calls promptly, the rest of us are ever more likely to be relegated to a narrow insurance network.

This great economic sort is on blatant display when we fly. The airlines are seemingly forever coming up with new and innovative ways to coddle an increasingly small group, while treating the majority of fliers with greater and greater contempt.

United Airlines is all too typical. The airline recently debuted fold-out beds for business-class travellers, complete with mood lighting, adjustable lumbar supports and fancy bedding.

But United's coach-class travellers are subjected to constant nickel and diming. Extra legroom is now an extra charge. So too, for travellers in the airline's new "Basic Economy" class, is the ability to choose one's seat when booking a flight or the ability to take more than one small, personal tote or bag on the plane.

United's initial apology for this most recent offence simply bolsters the case that it is less than concerned with rank-and-file customers. The company - which reported US$2.3 billion in net income last year - isn't exactly issuing a heartfelt mea culpa. A spokesman told The New York Times that "we had asked several times, politely" for the man to leave his seat, as if that justified subsequent events.

In a statement, United's CEO Oscar Munoz said he was sorry for "having to re-accommodate" the passenger and that the airline was working with the authorities to find out what happened, but did not admit that allowing security officers to physically manhandle a customer who was simply sitting in a coach seat hoping to get to his destination was, you know, wrong. A subsequent statement, issued the day after, offered a much more full-throated apology.

The same dynamic plays out in our political lives. In a study published in 2014, professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern University) found government policy and actions rarely reflected majority sentiment, but instead favoured corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans.

When congressional Republicans offered up a health- insurance reform package earlier this year that would have covered fewer people than the Affordable Care Act, Mr Jason Chaffetz, Republican representative from Utah, defended it by claiming Americans needed to choose between spending on necessary medical care and buying an iPhone. Meantime, the fabled 1 per cent would have received an average tax cut totalling US$37,000 if the legislation were fully enacted.

Don't mistake me. There are a lot of other things you can take away from this sorry event. There is the increased militarisation of American life, with the authorities reacting to common disputes in increasingly aggressive ways. There is a positive lesson, too, in that ordinary Americans have access to more potential publicity - and, hopefully, recourse - than ever before, courtesy of social media.

Finally, there is a narrative of privilege at play. More than a few pointed out this contretemps would likely not have received as much attention if the unwilling passenger were poor or African-American. Others noted that the doctor, who is Asian-American, might have been treated differently by officers or airline staff if he were white.

But this isn't an either-or situation. Yes, we can tell people who perceive themselves as privileged to get used to the second-class treatment those poorer than them have been receiving for a long time. But it seems like a better bet, both ethically and for the sake of our futures, to improve conditions for all.


• Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing The Dark Side Of The Personal Finance Industry, and a co-author of The Index Card.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2017, with the headline UA is not alone in treating customers with contempt. Subscribe