Indecent service a common trend on flights

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/27 17:33:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

A few days after you read this piece, I will be flying back to the US from Asia, and yes, with the now infamous United Airlines. Dare I hope to be taken care of like a god? Sure, big corporations often call their clients gods, a euphemistic reference as meaningful as the title "King of the Universe" that a self-indulgent and delusional guy might print on his business card. But could this time be different? This is, after all, a critical time for the airline company to polish its image after becoming No.1 public enemy worldwide by dragging one of its "gods," a passenger named David Dao, to hell. 

But on the other hand, I am more than aware that any decent kind of service, should there be one, won't last long. I know I should be prepared for the rude attendants, hard-to-swallow food, uncomfortable seats and even an altercation. This is not only the standard expectation for right now, but for a long time in the future, and not only when flying with United but all major airlines in the US. 

The trend has been there all along but it takes something like what happened to Dao, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky, to make us realize it is there.

After Dao was forcibly pulled out from his seat on the fully booked United flight on April 9, it took almost two days and several statements before the company came out with anything like a full apology. And while the image of the doctor's bloodied face was still vivid in many people's minds, a flight attendant at American Airlines made a young mother with a baby cry by taking away her stroller from the flight she was boarding on April 22. She then squared off with a male passenger who tried to defend the mother. In both cases, passenger videos went viral.

You would think after the Dao incident stirred up public rage, all airlines would be doing everything they could to avoid getting into similar predicaments. Well, that is far too logical for an industry that can behave in an exceptionally cavalier way.

It is reflected in the many exceptional practices of this industry. For example, overbooking, which allows airline companies to sell more tickets than the number of seats to maximize their profits in case some passengers don't show up. Imagine if theaters or doctors did the same with seats or appointments. The fact that airlines are even legally allowed to force a paid passenger off an overbooked flight is beyond most of our imaginations.

And in the past few decades, this industry has been narrowing the space between seats, dropping food and water offerings, charging for luggage, and increasing air fares. This offer-less and charge-more business model could easily drive another industry to the wall. But the business, despite its financial woes, survives.

The hefty investment the industry has made in lobbying services can certainly help. For example, the latest available data on Open Secrets, a database that examines how clean governments are, shows the industry donated nearly $3.6 million in federal elections and spent nearly $26.5 million on lobbying. As a result of the lobbying efforts, big companies successfully merged with one another to limit the number of major players in the field to less than the fingers of one hand. That means it is easy for all to fall into lockstep on prices, and quality of service.

But on the other hand, the victims have to be blamed for their own ordeal. Unlike customers of other industries, airline passengers don't tend to fight against the oppression and exploitation as vocally as other customers. The stories passengers shared with the media or on the Internet in the past few weeks were evidence. Some of the stories are as horrific as Dao's. Yet they didn't emerge until after the incident.

Not only do the passengers often keep their silence when being mistreated, airline passengers tend to also vent their anger toward the airlines on one another instead. For example, a few years ago, the brutally narrow leg space between seats prompted the invention of a seat reclining blocker, a gadget you can put on the back of the seat in front of you to defend your space by disabling that seat from reclining back. The gadget has caused many fights among neighboring passengers who often forget whose fault it really is.

Many reasons may have contributed to the nonresistance of airline passengers in the US. Maybe it's the post 9/11 iron fist security in the airports that has trained people to grin and bear it. Or maybe it's that when you are put in a cage, you are more likely to behave like a tamed animal.

But I suspect it's also because the airline industry behaves like a dictator. When facing a real dictator themselves, even the Americans don't know what to do.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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