The ordeal of the United Airlines passenger who was dragged off a plane Sunday night hasn’t just touched a nerve in the American conscience—it’s practically torn one out and waterboarded it. It has raised issues about the tone-deafness of corporate management (the passenger was “re-accommodated”); the haste to use force on the part of law enforcement authorities; the routine practice of overbooking; and, for good measure, the impact of Chinese social media outrage on stock prices.
We just can’t let this one go. Perhaps it’s because our outrage isn’t just directed at United’s specific behavior but also highlights a larger point. As awful as the airlines can be—they routinely mistreat customers, misplace baggage, cancel flights—the actual on-board experience that the carriers control is only part of what makes flying so miserable today. I’d argue it’s not even half of it. As businesses, airlines face a challenge unique among consumer-facing brands. Most of the factors that immiserate their customers fall outside their influence. United’s CEO can compensate passengers for that flight from Chicago to Louisville. But there’s not much an executive can do to compensate the median airline passenger for his or her typically miserable experience.
While all things considered, flying remains immensely convenient, but it is also simultaneously difficult, coarse, arbitrary, and frustrating—and that’s before you get on the plane, or even encounter an employee of United or JetBlue. By then, it’s likely you’ve already endured a series of dignity-stripping torments that have primed you to be miserable. And you know there are more to come.
While some cities have done an excellent job of building public transit that can ferry people to airports reliably and with little agita, simply getting to many airports can be a miserable slog through traffic—especially in the New York area. A ride to LaGuardia or JFK can mean bumping through pothole-ridden streets and enduring long lines simply to be dropped off in a construction zone. The airlines aren’t responsible for the pathetic state of the BQE or the fact that LaGuardia has the feel of a developing-world airport.
Airlines have improved the consumer experience by eliminating the lines associated with checking in, with kiosks and mobile boarding passes. But upon arrival, passengers have to endure the TSA gauntlet—long lines, orders to remove shoes and computers, surly agents demanding you throw out your saline solution and pulling aside your 6-year-old for a pat-down. The airlines can’t help you here either.
You might arrive at the gate, having passed through that nightmare, only to find that your flights can be canceled or delayed by severe weather, which seems to be on the rise due to climate change—another factor airlines can’t control.
Once you’re on the plane, you might be subject to further delays because the people who manage the airport schedule too many flights to leave at the same time, because authorities haven’t expanded the number of runways, and because the technological systems that govern air traffic control, while something of a 20th-century wonder, haven’t been updated. When the pilot comes on and says, “We’re now No. 17 for takeoff,” it’s not the airline’s fault.
Once aloft, the airlines can control the environment—the temperature, the food, the movies, the entertainment options, the space between the seats. But they can’t control the factors that may make the flight so dreadful—turbulence, storms, and delays in landing. (It’s extremely annoying when you’re about to complete a cross-country flight, only to notice that the plane is circling the airport for a half-hour because of congestion issues.) And the airlines have no role in making life miserable for the international travelers who are now subject to the tender mercies of the newly gung-ho and hostile customs agents, who now routinely harass U.S. citizens and foreigners alike.
It’s hard to think of other consumer-facing service businesses that labor under these types of constraints and issues. Imagine a hotel where, upon entry, instead of being greeted by a bellman, cops strip-searched you. Or a restaurant where a policeman made you throw out your water bottle before getting seated. Or a movie where the fire department routinely made you sit for an hour looking at a blank screen.
This is not to excuse United, or any other airline, from its behavior—what happened in Chicago was appalling, and the company deserves to be pilloried for the sheer inhumanity of the incident. But consumers have long been primed to unload on United and its peers. Knowing just how little they can do to improve the overall air travel experience, airlines should redouble their efforts to make sure that it is pleasant, hassle-free, and humane once you get on board and are in their care. That’s what JetBlue did when it first came along. And it’s what many airlines do with their first-class passengers or very frequent flyers today. For the rest of us, airlines are now offering “low-cost” seats with fewer amenities for the same cost as their old basic fares and seem to be stripping more and more basic comforts with each year.
Airlines may not see much profit in treating their travelers as something other than human cargo—and it’s true that consumers will ultimately respond more to prices than on-board perks. There are powerful incentives to not improve. But the airline industry needs a good guy right now. United and its peers should be racing to become one.