Weekly Roundup, Friday 21 April, 2017

Cold? Not really, not when bundled up, and with a warming mug of gluhwein in hand.  Me at my favorite market in Regensburg.

Good morning

Are you thinking about joining us on our Christmas Markets cruise this December?  Several people have written to say they love the concept, but are turned away by the thought of the cold.  That is understandable, but needn’t become an obstacle to enjoying the experience.

Certainly, as we emerge from our winter and start to enjoy hints of the summer ahead, the thought of ‘more of the same’ holds little appeal.  But we’re only outdoors for limited amounts of time while touring, and only when we choose to be.

It could be said that the cooler outside weather makes the ship all the more appealing and warm and cozy, and that is certainly so.  Plus, temperatures in early/mid December in Europe are no cooler, and perhaps even a bit warmer, than in much of the US at the same time of year (although, yes, not so much for Florida!).

And, when we are outside, what better excuse for grabbing a nice warm mug of gluhwein and sipping it appreciatively!  With modern fabrics and materials, it is easy to dress up very snugly to keep out the cold, and I even provide some handwarmers, too.

So, please don’t be turned away by weather thoughts.  Most people, when they are on the cruise, find themselves wishing for some snow (a wish only seldom fulfilled – most of the time, everything is clear and dry), and we all can turn up the heat in our cabins to as toasty a setting as we wish.

What else this week.  I somewhat unwillingly return to the awkward story of United dragging a man off a flight, and the United theme flows through three more articles too, at which point, the newsletter was already longer than it is most weeks with more varied content.  So here’s your ‘all United’ newsletter.  I’ll try not to mention the airline at all next week, but I fear that may be difficult to avoid – even if only because there are so few airlines in the US to write about these days.

  • More Thoughts on the UA Debacle
  • No-one to be Fired at UA
  • Another United Unfortunate Incident
  • When the Only Thing Left to Do is Laugh

More Thoughts on the UA Debacle

My comments on the UA passenger being dragged off his flight last week engendered quite a range of responses, ranging from quiet thanks and gentle correction to misplaced outrage and demands that I immediately deify the passenger involved.

I know we all automatically hate and blame the airlines, just like they in turn automatically hate and blame us.  But some of the reasons offered up for why Dr Dao should be excused for his actions really were strange.  Nonetheless, some clarifications/corrections seem appropriate, and most of all, it is necessary to appreciate that there are so many things wrong with this story, that it is difficult not to stop after the first one or two things and overlook other failings and factors that are also relevant.

The first of the points I raise below is most clearly a case where there are multiple issues, and few commentators have looked beyond the first of the issues.

The requirement to get off the flight both was and was not legal :  Let’s consider this point first, because it is really the key issue.  Probably, the requirement that Dr Dao leave the flight – although now universally hailed as being morally wrong – was simultaneously both legal and illegal.  How so?

It is likely that United’s Contract of Carriage doesn’t allow for passengers who have already boarded the plane and sat down in their assigned seats to subsequently be offloaded so as to make room for airline staff members wishing or ‘needing’ to fly but not having confirmed seats.

But that isn’t really relevant, leastways, not when you’re at ground zero, and being told to get off the plane by a crew member and having that demand backed up by someone calling themselves ‘the authorities’ (whatever that actually means – see the next point) and threatening to offload you by force if necessary, and threatening to arrest you.

There are conflicting sources of authority for what the airline and its employees can do.  Sure, the contract of carriage sets out some obligations, but it also has some large areas of discretion, and it isn’t the only source of what the airline can and can’t do from a civil perspective.

There is also federal criminal law that states passengers must obey the lawful commands of uniformed airline staff.  In this case, ‘lawful’ doesn’t mean ‘allowable and in conformity with the contract of carriage’.  It means ‘any command to do any action which is not illegal’.

It is lawful to ask a passenger to get off a plane, even if the reason for deciding to ask the passenger to get off the plane is not lawful (that’s a nice distinction, but a real one).  It may create a breach of the civil contract between the passenger and United, but it is a lawful command from a federal perspective.  If you are asked to do just about anything that is not obviously inappropriate, dangerous, offensive, or stupid, then you pretty much have to do so.  ‘Put your seat backs up’.  ‘Don’t get up and go to the bathroom’.  And so on.

Plus, there’s a lovely ‘get out of jail free’ card for United and its staff.  If a passenger refuses to do something, then the staff just say ‘the passenger was hostile, we don’t feel comfortable with him on the flight, he is a security risk’ and all the other stock standard phrases, which automatically validates their actions and creates at least the semblance of a lawful reason to now demand the passenger leave the plane.  This happens way too regularly and I often write about it.

This is exactly the same as with the police.  A police officer may unlawfully ask you to do something that you lawfully may indeed do (for example, to stop taking pictures/video of what he is doing).  You may quite rightly refuse, advising the officer that there is no law forbidding you from filming him, and an enormous number of court cases have clearly affirmed your right.  He then turns around and arrests you, not for filming him, but for ‘interfering with police business’ or ‘disorderly conduct’ or any one of a dozen other charges.  Maybe even the charges are subsequently dropped – but only after you’ve been cuffed and carted off to jail for some uncertain period of time.

This is what the issue was all about.  Sure, United started off by making a mistake – deciding to offload paying passengers for a bad reason.  But having made that mistake, the offloadees were bound and obliged to comply with the command, valid under federal law even if not a part of their contract for carriage with United, to leave the plane.  Their appropriate recourse would be to subsequently sue United for a breach of their contract.  It is not to refuse to comply with the order to deplane, which is now a different issue entirely.

The people who took Dr Dao off the plane were not police :  Although wearing ‘police’ patches, the three men were not sworn and badged officers of any official police force.  Instead, they are Chicago Department of Aviation security officers, and apparently ‘real’ police forces have quite correctly complained as to how the officers in this department have created ambiguity as to if they are ‘rent a cop’ type employees or sworn police officers.  This ambiguity flowed through the first few days of narrative, with most accounts referring to them as police rather than rent a cops.

I’m not sure this changes things much – would ‘real police’ have acted any differently?  One friend says yes, real police would have simply Tasered the guy so as to make it easier to extract him from his seat and ensure his compliance!

Inasmuch as the three men were there merely to secure the compliance of the passenger to the lawful order to deplane, their status as security officers or badged/sworn police officers doesn’t really seem to make a lot of difference.  Certainly, the regular police have always shown themselves eager to do whatever airline staff ask them to do in all other cases prior to this one.

Dr Dao was beat up by the security officers :  I don’t know about this, but as best I can tell from looking at the video, any injuries Dr Dao suffered were not a result of the security officers beating him up, but an entirely foreseeable outcome as a result of his struggling not to be dislodged from his seat.

Beating someone up is never acceptable and I’m not condoning that for an instant.  I just don’t think he was beaten up.

The flight wasn’t a United flight :  This is true, but it is also a point that United hasn’t raised in its own defense.  It was a contracted flight, and operating under a United flight number, but the company operating the flight and employing the gate staff, the flight attendants and pilots, and also the four staff members needing to get on the flight, was not United (it was Republic Airlines, operating as United Express).

I’m very surprised this point hasn’t been offered up more prominently by United, even as a moral excuse if not a legal excuse (not too sure about the doctrine of respondeat superior in the US, but it probably will make United legally liable for the acts of Republic, although in turn, Republic has almost certainly entered into undertakings to indemnify United for any such acts).

Does Dr Dao’s criminal past have any relevance?  Does mentioning the fact that Dr Dao lost his medical license for some 15 years, and was found to have committed crimes of dishonesty, have any relevance to what happened, or is it an outrageous uncalled for ad hominem attack on the man? Certainly, if his past runs-in with the law were for unrelated things like embezzlement, that would probably not be something relevant to cite.

But surely it is relevant to note how he has been assessed as ‘lacked the foundation to navigate difficult situations, both interpersonally and in a complex profession’ and has ‘poor decision-making despite his overall level of ability.  His choices have resulted in significant consequences over the years yet he continues to function in this manner.  He is generally not forthright regarding details of events unless challenged and at times he will tell different version of a story to different interviewers.’?

Does that not suggest that he is someone who may not act the same way that most other people would act (like for example, when he was subsequently filmed after reboarding the plane, pacing up and down and calling out ‘Just kill me now!’ – what sort of person does that!)?  Does that not suggest that maybe his experience and behaviour was an outlier event that you and I run no risk of also encountering when we fly somewhere?  Sure, we have the same risk of being off-loaded, but might it be fair to say that if we were ordered off a flight, we’d comply rather than force the authorities to drag us off against our will?

They should have gone easy on Dr Dao because he is an immigrant :  Really?  As an immigrant myself, I totally reject any suggestion that any immigrant ever deserves more rights and special rights over and above those of regular US citizens.

In any event, how was anyone to know that he was not American born?  Sure, he has oriental features, but so too do a lot of US-born Asian-Americans.  Should United’s ‘random selection’ of who was to be offloaded in the future be filtered so that only White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males be offloaded?

They should have gone easy on Dr Dao because he was 69 :  Really?  Are we to have a scale of behaviors/actions/expectations based on age?  How finely calibrated should this be?  At what point do ‘mature adults’ regress to becoming less mature beings and deserving of greater tolerance?

If Dr Dao is allowed to practice medicine, surely he can be expected to conform to normal adult norms.

I’m not a doctor so shouldn’t comment on the extent or nature of Dr Dao’s injuries :  True.  I have no idea what Dr Dao’s injuries were and didn’t try to describe or analyze them, I merely expressed surprise at the length of his subsequent hospitalization.  We have now been told by his attorney that he suffered sinus injuries, a broken nose, missing teeth, and concussion.

I’ve been discharged from hospitals, unable to walk (and with no crutches supplied), groggy from anesthetics and in considerable pain, 12 – 15 hours after admission.  I’ve seen people emerge from hospital within a week of major heart surgery.  I’ve also had a broken nose and sinus injuries, as a result of getting into fights (albeit not with airport security guards!).  But I didn’t spend more than a few hours in A&E, not four days as an in-patient.  And – here’s the thing.  If Dr Dao had just complied with the order to get off the plane, he could have completely spared himself all his injuries.

The captain (and flight attendants) didn’t authorize the security guards to remove Dr Dao :  This is a hard one to swallow.  But the United Airlines pilots union says the pilot isn’t to blame for what happened.  In a statement they say ‘….at this point, without direction and outside the control of United Airlines or the Republic crew, the Chicago Dept of Aviation forcibly removed the passenger.’

So the pilot was unaware of this?  None of the flight attendants noticed three security officers march down the plane aisle, argue for some minutes with the passenger, then haul him off?  Puh-leeze…..

This wasn’t a case of three security officers sneaking on the plane when no-one was looking, instantly/immediately assaulting an unsuspecting passenger without warning, and before any flight crew members had a chance to intercede.  This was a staged process extending over some time.  So I find this claim hard to understand.

And how about after they had pulled Dao out of his seat and was dragging him along the aisle, to a chorus of expressions of horror from the passengers.  The flight crew still didn’t notice?

And, if it wasn’t the fault of the pilots or flight crew or apparently any United staff at all, why is United’s CEO so busy apologizing every which way and saying that everything is everyone’s fault?  Why isn’t he saying ‘sorry, it was a terrible thing, but nothing to do with us’?

Dr Dao’s actions were akin to those of Rosa Parks and should be venerated not denigrated :  Clearly some people don’t know who Rosa Parks was or what she did.  She was an African-American who objected to segregation on buses and refused to give up her seat, in the colored section of a bus, for a white person because the white section of the bus was full.

Dr Dao was randomly selected to give up his seat.  No racial element surrounded either who was selected, or who he was being required to sacrifice his seat for.  And I’m sure that Dr Dao hopes that there will be no continued comparison with Rosa Parks – as best I can see, the outcome of her actions did not bring her a big fat payout in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Instead, it resulted in her being fired from her job, suffering death threats, and perforce moving to another part of the country, although happily, it also seems that the court case against her (something else Dao should hope to avoid) got bogged down in the courts, and in time she has become widely admired as one of the leaders of the civil rights movement.

Oh – one other thing on this point.  At least Dr Dao didn’t experience the same fate as Fletcher Melvin, an earlier civil rights protester.

Or maybe his actions are akin to Rosa Parks?  Here’s the thing that has me most conflicted about this case, which truly defies easy categorization.  While I think Dao acted unwisely and equally created the situation that lead to his own injuries, the other side of the coin is that if he’d just meekly got up and off the plane, there’d be no outrage now.  The actions of the security officers and the video showing a bleeding passive Dao being dragged up the aisle does have an impact that has caused major debate and even some consequence.

United says it will never use police to remove seated passengers in the future (a promise that I don’t see lasting); but more positively, Delta has responded by upping its game, creating an escalating series of inducements to encourage volunteers in any type of overbooking situation that could now rise as high as almost $10,000 (apparently United only offered $800 before resorting to force).

Or, yet again, probably not.  On the other hand, apart from the Delta thing, will anything really change?  The key thing about Rosa Parks is possibly that she was the spark that lit a fire that was all set and ready to burst into a powerful blaze.  But is Dao really the catalyst for a similar revolution in airline customer service?  Yes, there are mutterings from Congress that ‘there oughtta be a law against that’ – although whether that should delight us or not is anyone’s guess.

There were laughable efforts by United’s competitors to try and translate what happened into an act of bias and prejudice against people of Chinese origin, but that has yet to materialize into any impact on United’s strength in the Chinese market (Dr Dao being a Chinese-Vietnamese-American).

Some doomsayers have predicted massive harm to United’s share price, but – now ten days past the event – there’s precious little sign of that.  Yes, the stock has slightly underperformed the composite airline index since the event, but when viewed more broadly, in terms of the last month, it has outperformed the airlines as a whole, or, if viewed more narrowly, in terms of the last two days, it is pulling ahead again.  Furthermore, the drop in its share price may also be as much a response to its recently announced disappointing first quarter result.

Other people with loud internet voices have proclaimed that either they, or someone they know, will never ever fly on United again, no matter what.  But, at least up until a day or so ago, there’s been no disclosed measurable impact on United’s forward bookings, and the airline is pressing ahead with an ambitious expansion plan.

The ugliest part of all of this is that the airlines are reflections of their customers.  Airlines would much prefer to compete on quality – you can make profit from selling ‘quality’, but you will always struggle to successfully compete on price alone.  But we – their customers – consistently and without exception show that we don’t value quality.  We spurn airlines that offer more seating room (remember American Airlines’ “More Room in Coach” program), we actively avoid high quality airlines because we think they are more expensive, even if they aren’t (this was a problem Alaska Airlines had), and we ignore airlines that offer more generous free bag policies (when did you last factor in the cost of checking your bags into your choice of airline?).

Sure, the airlines have made it more difficult for us to become activists, by merging and merging themselves into now only three dominant carriers, and then creating sets of travel experiences, terms, conditions, and fares that are almost indistinguishable.

But every part of this is something that we’ve either passively allowed to happen or encouraged.  We can’t blame the airlines for rationally responding to the clearly demonstrated preferences of the market.

So, what choice is there?  None.  Look at the last airline that tried to do something different – Virgin America (RIP).  It ended up that the only differences were purple decor and lighting, and loud ugly music.  Otherwise, the seats, the fares, and even the service were all insufficiently different from the dinosaurs as to allow it to succeed.

Look at the last airline that has succeeded – JetBlue.  Sure, it is still in business, but it is a very small fish, and doesn’t show many signs of growing to match the big boys in size, while becoming more like them in terms of travel experiences.  The same with Southwest – definitely a success story, but is it really much different from the other airlines these days?

No-one to be Fired at UA

Despite apologizing prolifically, United’s CEO has now announced that no-one will lose their job as a result of the Dr Dao incident.  Indeed, he said there was never a consideration that anyone would be fired – something we all suspected, of course.

This is because it was, he explained, a total failure of the entire system, with no one person to blame.  Uh – you could have fired two or three people, you know.

But for those of us hoping that this would indeed be a Rosa Parks turning point and cause United to confront its ugliness and change, the lack of any tangible consequences shows that the same old same old remains in place.  No-one is accountable – everyone’s fault means that it is no-one’s fault.

Another United Unfortunate Incident

As one who enjoys traveling with my 12 yr old daughter, I’ve noted with alarm the growing hypersensitivity to seeing adult men with young girls in tow.

A hotel in the UK called the police, a couple of weeks ago, on what turned out to be a normal situation with a man and his daughter traveling together; and this week we learn of United grilling a man and his daughter on an international flight – a strange thing for the airline to do, because you’d think their pnr data would already hint at the familial relationship between the two.

And, without a doubt, one can be certain that in both cases, the people perpetrating these indignities explained ‘we’re only doing this for your protection’.  Lucky us.

When the Only Thing Left to Do is Laugh

It seems we’ve gone through the entire cycle of responses to the United incident – disbelief, outrage, despair, and now we’ve nothing left to do but laugh about it.

Some of these jokes are cruelly accurate.  Many of them are also wickedly funny – a collection of suggested new slogans for United.

  • “Drag and Drop”
  • “We put the hospital in hospitality”
  • “Board as a doctor, leave as a patient”
  • “Our prices can’t be beaten, but our passengers can”
  • “We have First Class, Business Class and No Class”
  • “Not enough seating, prepare for a beating”
  • “We treat you like we treat your luggage”
  • “We beat the customer.  Not the competition”
  • “And you thought leg room was an issue”
  • “Where voluntary is mandatory”
  • “Fight or flight.  We decide”
  • “Now offering one free carry off”
  • “Beating random customers since 2017”
  • “If our staff needs a seat, we’ll drag you out by your feet”
  • “A bloody good airline”
  • “We’re not happy ’til you’re not happy.”
  • “First airline to offer Chinese Take-Out.”

Until next week and perhaps a no-United newsletter, please enjoy safe travels





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