United Airlines and the Price Race to the Bottom

United Airlines is a dickwad. By now, just about everyone knows the incident where police, at the request of United Airlines, forcibly dragged a passenger off a flight because he refused to give up his seat, resulting in injuries to the man. United Airlines wanted to bump him and 3 others so they could seat four of their own employees.

United had unsuccessfully appealed for volunteers who were willing to give up their seats for $800, stay in a hotel and fly the next day. The passengers were removed so airline staff could get to Louisville to man a flight the following day.

That’s when airport law enforcement was called to remove him man by force. Passengers screamed ‘my god what are you doing’ and ‘this is wrong’ as the man was yanked from his seat. He appeared to go limp after being slammed against a headrest and one passenger said he was ‘knocked out’. When no-one else came forward, the air crew came aboard with four slips of paper with the names and seat numbers of passengers and began informing them they had been chosen to leave the plane.

‘They approached his doctor and told him to get off the plane,’ he said. ‘He refused because he had work the next day. He’s a medical doctor. He was very emphatic, “I can’t be late, I’m a doctor, I’ve got to be there tomorrow.’

Anspach, who said that the whole situation had put him off flying with United in the future, said that he saw the passenger hit his face when staff dragged him off.

United has since issued an apology. They say they are working with authorities, who have suspended the officer in question. Yada, yada, yada.

I have heard several people declare they would now be boycotting United Airlines because of this incident. I can respect that and mostly agree with it. It is an egregious misstep on the company’s part. United is not an airline which routinely covers itself in glory. But by and large, every airline has had instances of terrible customer service. Yes, even Southwest Airlines, which has one of the best reputations in the industry.

Airline travel used to considered a pleasure, a luxurious experience.

Funny as it may sound now, airline food was once considered to be haute cuisine. Airlines did not nickle-and-dime passengers at every turn; two checked bags with no weight restrictions on domestic flights, free headphones, free pillows, meals on almost every flight, etc etc.

But somewhere along the line, passengers as a collective decide that they wanted cheap travel more than luxurious or even courteous travel. Airline travel has become a race to the bottom. In order to lower prices, airlines have cut services everywhere they can. Lowest airfare costs mean lower paid employees and less training and more stress from overworking and thus worse service. It very well might also mean less investment in upgrading and maintenance of computer systems which can result in system and technical difficulties with scheduling and re-booking.

Low-cost strategies affect everything.

I’m not trying to sound sympathetic to their ‘predicament’.  Some of the big airlines are still posting profits and low-cost carriers are making money as well. But even though we all complain and say we don’t have a choice, passengers keep seeking the cheapest and cheapest flights, not better service or amenities. To wit:

Kirby’s leadership at American seems to be based, thus far, on some really interesting assumptions about his core customers. An amazing 87% fly the airline just once a year, and they tend to choose American based on price. This means that price-based customers with fleeting loyalty now represent at least “50% of American’s current revenue.”

We are constantly hearing airline execs talking about loyalty programs and service enhancements that will create loyalty. But this analyst call was unique in that we had a major airline saying that its figures are showing that only about 13% of its customers are driven by factors other than price.

United will take a hit. For a time. But even though almost no one has any positive feelings towards United Airlines at the moment, we’ll probably continue to fly them. Imagine yourself a few months from now. If you can save $80 or $100 by flying United, will you choose them or a more expensive Southwest Airlines flight? Do you have a significant other or children spawn to take with you? Do the math. (Unless you look a little swarthy, in which case, don’t do math on your Southwest Airlines flight!).

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