Tuesday, April 18, 2017

United's "Re-accommodate" and the "Customer" Lie in Airline Doublespeak

The Internet is abuzz with the story of the doctor on the United Airlines flight who was "asked" to give up his seat, then beaten and forcibly removed from the plane. If you haven't seen it, the Jimmy Kimmel show had a pretty good synopsis. As shocking as the video footage of the event is, perhaps what might be even more surprising was when United came out with the statement:
Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.
I say shock, but I don't really mean shock, because in many respects while we're surprised that a business might say something like this, we're not surprised to see this kind of language and attitude from an airline. In that way, what I should probably say is that, while the footage and story is distressing, it's not really surprising.

The Grand Airline Lie: "Customer"
Most of us have expectations for "customer service". Inherent in that relationship is the principle that, as a customer, you have options and by choosing to spend your money with a vendor, part of your decision will be based on what you get for the service and how you are treated throughout the transactional experience. Or as you'd find on Wikipedia:
Customer service is the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase. The perception of success of such interactions is dependent on employees "who can adjust themselves to the personality of the guest". Customer service concerns the priority an organization assigns to customer service relative to components such as product innovation and pricing. In this sense, an organization that values good customer service may spend more money in training employees than the average organization or may proactively interview customers for feedback.
While you'll hear the airlines use the word "customer" a lot, for most travelers, there is little meaning beyond an exchange of money. Rather than being treated like customers, most airline passengers are treated more like cattle or sheep. We probably have more in common with the animals at factory farms than we do with the classic notion of a "customer".

And it's not just United Airlines. On CNN during the news cycle around the United story, the network ran a series of clips of people being thrown off the plane, all from different airlines. American, Delta, Spirit. They even lumped in a woman who was forced to buy pajama pants because JetBlue wouldn't let her on the plane wearing shorts that they didn't like.

Let's face it. They all suck. Some suck worse than others. People joke about it, but nothing gets better. Instead, things just deteriorate further.

So how did we get to this point? Here's a piece from Wired that does a good job of characterizing the problems with United. How United Turned the Friendly Skies into a Flying Hellscape is an interesting look at the recent history of the carrier and the impact of the merger with Continental. But in some sense, as noted, this issue transcends United.

The Inherent Tension of Flying
Traveling can be stressful. Some stresses are common -- we all struggle with time zone changes -- and some stresses are individual -- I may not be afraid of flying, but you might be. Time and schedules also ratchet up stress levels -- from concerns about making a flight or connecting flights to factors outside of the flight itself like business meetings, appointments or even vacation itineraries.

In the midst of this stressful environment for travelers, the airlines have been doing everything they can to ease traveler stresses (haha). Seriously though, rather than that, for the past 10 years or so, the airlines have increasingly pursued strategies of testing the limits of what passengers will tolerate, all with an eye towards increasing profitability. The Wired article talks about "Calculated Misery" and links to this New Yorker article, Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer. The article talks about JetBlue being a hold-out on charging baggage fees and what drove them to change:
Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.”
In short, not only do airlines, as a business, not care about you, the "customer", they're business model is increasingly built on taking advantage of you. United Airlines profited to the tune of nearly $10 billion dollars over the past two years with that business strategy.

And the effect on "customers" is to put them on edge, forcing them into a combative, defensive mindset. It's not really difficult to see the equation, build systems that impose misery, tensions rise. Add in a good portion of unequal treatment -- like walking past the first class section and seeing spacious seating that is such a contrast to the cramped seating that you're being put in -- raises tensions higher. That's partly why we have more incidents of "air rage" taking place.

You Must Obey the Uniformed Flight Crew
Since we returned to flying following the 9-11 highjackings, we've all been chartered with paying special deference to the uniformed flight crew. It goes without saying that it's an essential rule for the safety and security of the flight. At the same time, there are flights that it seems like turn into something just short of the Stanford prison experiment. Whether it's a result of the "psychological effects of perceived power", or simply a flight attendant having a bad day, airline passengers have to be aware that something that starts as a simple customer service incident can easily escalate to an event that brings in law enforcement. After all, who could forget the guy in the "Princess Bride" shirt?

These incidents between passengers and airlines staff will keep coming up because that's the business model. To quote from the Wikipedia page on the Stanford prison experiment:
The experiment's results favor situational attribution of behavior over dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). It seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' behavior.
The "customer" environment created by the airlines, while endorsed by Wall Street, is toxic. These days, when you engage with an airline as a "customer", you have to devote an inordinate amount of energy to mitigating the stresses inherent in the experience. That's why "the friendly skies" is laughable. There is no joy in the base level experience. There isn't really much that an airline can do to "wow" you. And the hostile environment turns minor events into seeming random acts of cruelty.

Take the United Airlines incident as an example. When United decided to remove those people, was it clear who they chose and why? Were they flying on standby? Did they pick Dr. Dao because he's asian? Did he pay less for his ticket than other passengers? While news stories may relate different answers to this, that we can believe that it was a random act of cruelty speaks volumes to the toxic  customer environment.

But it isn't going to change. Because profits and "shareholders enthusiasm" for more profits. Despite the tremendous first day dip in United Airlines stock value, it's value is returning. And it's unlikely that you'll see any government regulation that makes it better. At least, anytime soon. So, until such time as there is something like governmental regulation that forces the airline industry to end their "calculated misery" approach, you need to recognize that when the airline industry uses the word "customer", they really mean something "transactional actor". Sure, they will do things that seem kind of like customer service -- like having people respond to your frustrated posts on Twitter -- but their ability to do much of anything beyond kind words is quite limited. In the end, their goal is not really to make you happy, it's to get you to stop squeaking.

No comments: