Beyond the fine print

passengers-519008_1920I starting traveling more than…well…a long time ago.  When I was young, inexperienced and a bit nervous about flying, I probably read the fine print that comes with an airline ticket.

Lawyers write the fine print.  It is there so, in the event the flight doesn’t go as planned, they can say they warned you it might be cancelled, delayed or sent to an unscheduled stop.  You might lose your seat and/or your luggage.  You are reminded that the flight crew is in charge and must be obeyed.

There isn’t anything in the fine print about being dragged off the plane kicking and screaming and having a video of your performance go viral on social media.  But as we’re learned in the past few days, those are possibilities.

A doctor got on a United flight from to O’Hare to Louisville.  United sold more tickets than it had seats.  United picked some folks to take off the plane.  The doctor wouldn’t leave, so the always gentle Chicago Aviation Police thugs dragged him off.

As the police and doctor crossed the jet bridge, I’m sure an official alert went out to journalists and slip-and-fall lawyers:  opportunity is knocking.  A passenger videoed the events, so there is great fodder for further discussion.  And next thing you know there are news stories, radio commentaries, limp apologies by United, following by more stern apologies, following by some groveling.

Now it will all go to court.  United will claim it followed proper procedure, it is all very unfortunate and is being overblown.  The doctor’s legal team will claim he was injured both physically and psychologically and will never be the same again – although a few million bucks will salve his suffering.

The personal life of the doctor, the police who arrested him, the passengers, the pilots and anyone else within 100 yards of the plane when the incident occurred will likely be subject to public scrutiny.  Something controversial will be found in every personal history.

I’ve been a spokesman for a major oil company and a Catholic religious congregation.  Oil companies handle materials that blow up and catch fire, so that job had its challenges.  As for the religious congregation, there has been a good deal of controversy.

As a result, I feel deep empathy for the United spokesman who has to talk with the press about this.  I don’t know the person or the players involved, but I can predict the following with near certainty:

  • There was a discussion with senior management about how much blame to accept – or to place on the passenger.
  • Company lawyers advise against saying anything that can and will be used against the company in court – which means don’t say anything.
  • The spokesman is trying to put a happy face on a mess he didn’t create.
  • The spokesman likely had advised long ago that something like this could happen and suggested procedures to avoid it, which were ignored.

United and other airlines need to recall the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  I propose several practical applications for airlines:

  • If you sell a person a ticket on a plane, don’t give their seat to anyone else.
  • Never intentionally overbook.
  • If you make a mistake, don’t put people on the plane and then try to get someone to get off.
  • If you don’t have the seat you sold to someone, don’t expect to make them happy by giving them a seat on the next flight, a dinner voucher for a meal in the airport and/or a travel voucher to use later. Give the traveler a big, fat check or cold hard cash and cover any additional expenses they incur because you messed up.

My advice to airline customers?  Next time, drive.

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