Why The United Ejected Passenger Fiasco Will Not Hurt Its Brand

Quick informal survey: before two days ago, how many of you loved United Airlines?

Yeah, I thought so.

The video of the poor man getting ripped out of a plane due to the reality of over-booking looks bad. The screaming added a level of barbarism. The blood on his face when he came back only made it look worse. By all accounts, that was a bad move by the airline.

And it resonated with everyone because we have all been in unpleasant flying conditions, sitting with our knees jammed into a seat that was designed by medieval torturists while the pilot doesn’t give us information and just says that he’s waiting for news from control. When you’re traveling for pleasure, it’s annoying, because it’s cutting in to your trip. When you’re flying for business it’s annoying because you probably don’t want to be there anyway. There is no good argument for being delayed. No one wants to be bumped to the next day, even with a nice travel wager for another trip.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a cab driver. If you need to work the next day and you bought a ticket for a flight and the airline agreed to give you a seat and then not only says that there is no place for you but forcibly rips you out of the plane like a rotten wisdom tooth, well that’s pretty fucking shitty.

But let’s be honest. United Airlines is the largest airline in the world. They overbook each and every flight because a large percentage of people don’t show up on average for each flight. That’s a large percentage of seats that they can sell TWICE. The only inconvenience is occasionally having to pay for a hotel and a travel wager for a volunteer, or a non-volunteer if no one is willing to accept.

No matter what we say or do, nothing will make those people magically show up for each flight – we can’t eliminate bad weather, we can’t make sure every meeting ends on time, we can’t clear all highways of accidents to stop traffic jams. And thus, nothing will stop airlines from pursuing this profitable business strategy.

Plus it wasn’t even for other passengers, it was to give United employees a place on the plane so they could be where they needed to be the next morning. Bad organization? Or just part of the game? Air travel is complicated, and to prevent hundreds of people from being delayed or bumped to other flights the next morning that would cause a chain reaction across the country, leading to literally thousands of people being delayed, United tried to get those employees on the plane. So from one perspective, they tried to remove one person from the plane that night to prevent thousands of people from being delayed and missing flights the next day. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem so malicious.

So when I see the arguments to boycott United, I can only shake my head. Are you serious? You are so outraged that you will never fly United again? You might feel like that right now, but I guarantee you that as soon as you need to fly from DC to Dallas that you will not stop in Minneapolis for 5 hours just so you can fly Delta instead. You will have totally forgotten about this and even if you remembered it, is adding an entire day to what would normally be a few hour flight really helping to make anything better?

Fuck no. You’re flying United as soon as its convenient. Because we can support a cause, or a boycott, just as long as we are never the ones who have to make a decision. Sure, if you are booking a flight and there are two comparatively priced flights and you choose the non-United flight, go ahead, feel good inside. You really showed them!

But like I said, United is the biggest airline in the world. That means that they fly everywhere and they are often the only airline flying between certain places, so you often don’t have a choice. Don’t try to pretend that some sort of boycott will hurt United.

And for all of the experts who think that this even will hurt United’s brand, you are completely wrong. Like I said before, no one loves United, it’s not Apple or In-N-Out, it’s a functional brand that is a necessary evil. People will forget about this in a matter of hours, let alone days. No one who has a United flight today will not show up out of protest. That dude will probably get paid a nice sum to shut his mouth and he too will forget about it. He might even look back on it positively. Getting a million dollars for getting punched in the face and dragged off a plane? Only to come back and get on the plane? Where do I sign up?

Social media shows us everything, and as a result, we are completely desensitized to everything. Uber has a culture of sexually harassing women. People don’t care, they just want a car to show up within 2 minutes to take them where they want to go with a bottle of water and a candy. Trump fucking unilaterally bombed a sovereign nation (one that’s backed militarily by Russia) and no one cared, he’s already played golf like 5 times since then. Innocent black people are still getthing shot by police and yet where are the #BlackLivesMatter posts? Did you know there was a school shooting at an elementary school yesterday in San Bernadino? Surely the brutal death of an innocent, handicapped school child should provoke more outrage?

Nope, it didn’t even make the front page.

Some dude had a bad experience on a flight? Yeah, like that’s going to stick.

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2 thoughts on “Why The United Ejected Passenger Fiasco Will Not Hurt Its Brand

  1. Interesting article but I don’t really agree with the main point that it won’t hurt their brand. This incident can only affect their brand/company in three possible ways: 1, positive 2, neutral, and 3, negative. I think it’s safe to say that it won’t have a positive affect and given the already extensive coverage combined with the age of the internet/social media that we live in, it won’t be neutral. The only legitimate question isn’t really whether or not it will hurt their brand, but “how much?” As of the end of trading today, over a quarter billion has already been wiped off their market value. Granted it’s only a little more than 1% on a relative basis (and it’ll bounce back on the long run), it’s still a fairly meaningful amount. A lot of people on Wall Street would probably take United beatings just for 100 bps. While I agree that there isn’t anything wrong with overbooking as it’s a perfectly legal strategy that reduces inefficiency, the problem is their policy when people don’t volunteer (and I think that’s really what’s causing the uproar). I read the bakery analogy somewhere too but this is more like a bakery selling a donut to someone, that person pays for said donut, then turns out another employee was hungry so they try to take the donut back but if you refuse their offer, they can call Chicago cops and you risk a beating (or shooting if you’re of a certain demographic) if it’s one the goons. Even if it’s legal, it doesn’t make it moral (which is usually the recipe for changes in policies/procedure). It would have been far better for them to continue to raise the offer price until there’s enough volunteers or perhaps be more explicit in their policy and sell premium tickets that guarantee you can’t be removed. From a cost benefit standpoint, the cost of that couldn’t possibly be more than what they’re going to pay this guy in settlements and legal fees, much less the lost costumers. I agree that this incident won’t make a significant dent in their revenue as the vast majority of people will not factor this into their purchasing decisions (certainly won’t detract me from flying United. Also, the whole boycotting a brand/company for the unfortunate actions of a few is simply silly). However, it will certainly still be negative. Even though air travel is far from a highly competitive market, it’s still not a monopoly where consumers don’t have other options (even if it’s just a small handful). There will be many cases where United is priced very similarly to other carriers (especially domestic) with a similar travel time and in those marginal cases, this will make the difference. Again, that amount won’t be much on a percentage basis but it would certainly be more than if they had just continued to raise the offer prices. I can’t imagine anyone not taking an offer for say $2000 to wait till the next day. Long story short, I agree that it won’t much of a difference and we’ll all forget (I’ve already stopped caring), but I do think it will (if not already) have a negative impact on their brand (in the short term). Hopefully, this will incentivize them (along with other airlines) to update a poor policy (not the overbooking part. The whole getting security to remove you part) and let pricing mechanisms work. I guess my gripe has less to do with the guys beating (just an Asian, whatevs. there’s billions more) than the poor business policy. That’s probably a whole ‘nother issue in itself…

    -Bo

    1. Lot of good points in here Bo. After watching the video a few times, I do want to see people unite against United and make a real impact in their bottom line. Or maybe another airline step forward and promise the world “We will never bump anyone off a flight.” Maybe a company like that can win over new customers and inspire change in the airline industry. But at what cost? The airlines will have to make up for the cash they are making on overbooking, that means higher ticket prices for you and me who have never had the problem of getting beaten and ripped off of a plane. And if the incentive for volunteering to take another flight had no ceiling, each and every future volunteer would just wait until the airline announced that the compensation for getting bumped was $2000 or more. When you buy a ticket you technically enter into a contract of carriage, which does not guarantee you a seat on that plane but a transit between point A and point B. United had every right to not let that person fly, they followed procedure and chose that guy and he wouldn’t budge (granted the airline should have done that before the boarding). That’s why I feel like our outrage is so misguided here. He is not some sort of martyr. If he was and he truly experienced some sort of illegal injustice, maybe that would have an impact on United’s business. I just can’t see this causing any long term damage.

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