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Flying the unfriendly skies

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A few years ago, I was booked on a flight to return to Trinidad from Miami. In the departure lounge, the PA system stirred to life with a crackle. Gate attendants for the airline realised the flight was overbooked. They needed two passengers to give up their seats. A compensatory offer to the tune of US$400 was thrown out. Passengers gathered at the gate gave the airline staff cow-eyed stares, then went back to their overpriced airport victuals. The offer was increased.

“We are overbooked and we’re looking for two volunteers. We’re now offering US$800 in compensation and hotel accommodation.” My hand went up like there was helium in it. As an attendant motioned me towards her, I put on my best haughty reproach face. I had every intention of letting them know this situation was unacceptable. “I have business to attend to back home! This is really putting me out and will there be food vouchers as well?” 

I graciously accepted my US$800 bribe and headed for Howard Johnson’s. I’d never met him, but I had a feeling that we’d get along famously. As a self-employed person, I had the luxury of returning home a day late. For many travellers, though, a delayed return isn’t quite so cut and dry. Some people trying to milk a vacation, book their return flights up to the day before they have to be back at work. In the US, where they don’t play with absenteeism, ordinary working stiffs could find themselves on permanent vacation if their travel schedules aren’t kept. 

Last week’s incident aboard a United Airlines domestic flight triggered an international backlash. According to reports, an Asian American man was among four passengers selected to be bumped from the overbooked flight. Overbooking in the airline industry isn’t unusual. Some reports suggest that, while three other passengers begrudgingly accepted their heave-ho, Dr David Dao explained that he had patients to see and was not leaving. For his refusal, Dr Dao became a patient himself. 

What followed was a series of breathtaking fumbles by the airline. An initial release from United expressed regret that passengers had to be “reaccommodated.” Dictionaries will no doubt have to change their definition of reaccommodate to include “violently dragging someone from one place to the next, stripping them of all dignity.”

Additionally, American news outlets are reporting that a memo circulated to United Airlines staff described the passenger as belligerent. This depiction of the doctor’s behaviour seems to have been made without reference to recordings of the incident made by passengers. At least one such video refutes the suggestion that this overbooking lottery winner was anything of the sort. Gawkers keeping up with this story may want to be on the lookout for additional recordings which may shed more light on what actually happened. One or two cell phone videos do not a whole story tell. Regardless of this passenger’s reaction, though, the airline had a responsibility to handle the situation with tact and sensitivity. 

Finally, and too-little-too late-ly, the embattled CEO of United Airlines released a statement that was as close to contrition as the airline could manage. It issued an apology to “the customer that was forcibly removed...” So stricken with mortification was the airline that there was no mention of Dr David Dao’s name. This apology was supposed to assuage the hurt of getting one’s ass dragged down an aisle with less care than that afforded to the in-flight service cart. In that respect, it fell a bit short. 

As public relations disasters go, this was monumental. The Twitterverse, which seems created for the sole purpose of amplifying righteous indignation throughout the cosmos, pounced ferociously. There were suggestions Dr Dao was targeted because of his Asian ethnicity. It is important to remember that the victim was one of four passengers randomly selected for deplaning. Had the others objected as strenuously, they might have all gotten carpet burns on their way back to the departure lounge.  

The victim’s attorney told the BBC that talk of a compensation figure is premature. Quite understandable, considering that deciding between a private jet and a 40-foot yacht will require at least a quiet moment. 

With a class action lawsuit looming, threats of a boycott and a buckling share price, United Airlines may want to consider offering higher incentives to passengers inconvenienced by overbooking in the future. One late night talk show host suggested United should have gone up to $100,000. A bit extreme, yes, but the victim might have been more amenable to an offer he couldn’t refuse. A more substantial bribe could have avoided the much higher costs that are sure to come with the impending fallout. 

It makes me grateful that the most I’ve ever been exposed to on Caribbean Airlines is a long, watery steups from a surly ground staffer. I’d advise any Trini travellers caught in an overbooking situation to take the compensation because A) No one gets fired for missing a day in Trini and B) Trinis tend to find themselves handcuffed to stainless steel tables in such situations. 


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