United Airlines has broken its promise – indeed, what some believe to be not just a promise but a contractual commitment.
Now some of you are probably wondering what is news about this – it is far from the first time that an airline has reneged on its earlier promises/commitments – just think about all the changes to frequent flier programs, which – no matter how they are dressed up – are never to our advantage. Or, for a more commonly broken promise, their promise to get us where we’re hoping to go, on time, and with our baggage accompanying us!
Usually when airlines break their promises, the people who are being disadvantaged have some recourse – they can choose to take their business elsewhere. On the other hand, ‘conspiracy theorists’ would argue that the airlines have unofficially agreed to all be as bad as each other, so as to create ‘revolving door’ consumerism – customers who leave one airline, outraged at unfair treatment, are balanced by former customers of other airlines who similarly are outraged and move to other airlines. It is like a game of musical chairs, except no-one ever removes any chairs, and the net result for the airlines as a group is nothing.
This is what the Department of Justice and the airlines assure us is fair full competition, of course. If we don’t like Airline A, we are free to choose Airline B or C, which – oh my, what a coincidence – have the same policies, prices, and problems.
But, I’m distracting myself. Back to the present broken promise. This broken promise by United is a little different. It affects a group of people who have absolutely totally no recourse whatsoever. Its own retirees. What are they to do? What can they do? Effectively nothing at all.
Okay – I hear you again. Even this is far from new news – pension plan problems in the past have clearly shown us that nothing is guaranteed to us in the future, especially from an airline.
Nonetheless, this is a gratuitous bit of mean minded miserliness by United. The airline has decided to re-jig its space available travel priorities, such that retirees now drop massively down the priority list in terms of who gets to fly in empty seats on planes.
In the past, lifetime travel benefits – which inched up the priority list based on the years of service an employee put in – were one of the really big deals that attracted people to the industry, and kept them in the industry, even when so much else was going bad around them.
But now United has decided that all active staff get higher boarding priorities than any retiree. The retiree who had faithfully contributed to United for 30 years is now having to wait until even the freshest new hires have first taken their priority turn.
This switch is all the more meaningful due to cut-backs in service, and much higher load factors on planes. Whereas in the past, a person flying space available might have had a choice of five flights to wherever they wished to go, and have been almost guaranteed a space on any of those five flights, nowadays it is more common to see maybe only four or three flights remaining and space available would-be travelers missing out on all of them, especially if they’re not at the top of what is sometimes almost 100 levels of priority.
It is hard to plan any sort of regular vacation with booked accommodation, touring, rental cars, etc, if you’re not sure within a day or two when you’ll actually get there, and if you’re also not sure how long it will take you to fly home again, either.
Now your tears may be fairly dry at learning about this. A lifetime of flight benefits in return for a decade or two of service has always been an exceedingly generous transaction. But that’s not the point. The past arrangement was one which United fairly agreed to and accepted, and it was respected by all employees. Those still working realized how the priority system worked, and if they planned to be longer term employees, they knew that as time passed, their own position on the priority list was gradually rising, and that position would be protected into the future.
But suddenly United has changed the rules. Maybe it is a sensible business decision for the airline to make – adding greater benefits to new hires means it can get away with paying them less. But it should have grandfathered in all current retirees and their travel priorities.
Interestingly, at least one former employee has been grandfathered in. Former CEO Glenn Tilton’s travel benefits (which I’ll wager are positive space and first class, rather than space available and coach class) remain intact.
Retired flight attendants are now bringing a class action lawsuit against United. Let’s wish them well.
More details here.