Ethics Dunce: Hawaiian Airlines

I find this story hard to believe, and yet it is consistent with the disturbing trend of people and businesses taking unfair advantage of captive audiences and markets—what I recently termed the “The Hamilton Effect.” The attitude is, “we have you, you’re trapped, and you have no choice but to accept what we give you.” It is a breach of respect, fairness, autonomy, and the Golden Rule.

Before I saw this story today—it is a few says old, but I missed it–I was going to write about a more mundane example I encountered at the airport in Sacramento. I was getting on a long flight and an early one, so I bought more items than usual at an airport news store: a large bottle of water, a granola bar, orange juice, some yogurt, two newspapers and a magazine. After I paid, I asked for a bag, as I always do, and was told that it would cost 25 cents. I never heard of such a thing. I literally had more than I could carry without a bag, and told the clerk that if they were going to change the rules, I should have advance notice. There was no real option, however, unless I wanted to be thirsty and hungry on the airplane for a couple of hours, as well as bored with nothing to read.

All of the airport is like that, of course. Commentators as diverse as Jerry Seinfeld and Ralph Nader complain about it: you are suddenly in some alternate universe where everything costs twice as much. I bought a large size bag of M&Ms in Chicago that cost over seven dollars. “We have you, you’re trapped, and you have no choice…”

A 66-year-old man on a Hawaiian Airlines flight that had just left the West Coast for Honolulu found the cabin temperature chilly, and requested a blanket. He was incredulous when he was informed that there would be a $12 charge. I wouldn’t buy a typical airplane blanket for that, and this was a rental! It’s gouging, plain and simple, and the passenger said so. He then demanded to talk to an airline official, and was given the corporate phone number. During his irate conversation, the man told the company representative, “I’d  like to take someone behind the woodshed for this.”  That’s an old, barely used term for reprimanding or punishing someone, but it apparently frightened a culturally ignorant flight attendant, who informed the pilot that a passenger was threatening the staff.Naturally, the only thing to do was to dump excess fuel in the Pacific, turn the flight around, and go back to LAX. This cost about $12,000, and delayed the flight for nearly four hours.

That’s a much better solution than giving in to an uncomfortable passenger who had a legitimate gripe, and letting him use a crummy blanket free of charge. Still, LA police and the FBI were able to detain the man as if he was a terrorist and interrogate him, so he was “taken behind the woodshed” for protesting and for using a term from Mark Twain’s era that a public school educated employee had never heard or read before .

That’ll learn him!

The dangerous man was put on another airline’s flight to Hawaii.

Hawaiian Airlines, based on its public statement about this fiasco, thinks it handled everything just fine, thanks:

“Diverting a flight is clearly not our first choice, but our crew felt it was necessary in this case to divert to Los Angeles and deplane the passenger before beginning to fly over the Pacific Ocean.”

Let me guess: what is this deranged, service-challenged, cheap and venal airline’s first choice? Slapping a passenger around until he surrenders his wallet? Dropping him into the ocean? I spilled a bottle of Perrier on a flight last week: should I expect to be charged for napkins and paper towels when this happens in the future?

What happened to proportion? Compassion? Kindness? Consideration? Is a lousy $12 bucks worth turning the already crummy experience of flying into this kind of mean-spirited indifference and bullying?

Hawaiian Airlines’ conduct was greedy, unfair and really stupid, wasting money and inconveniencing an airplane full of passengers in order to insist on a policy that was obnoxious to begin with.

“We have you, you’re trapped, and you have no choice but to accept what we give you.”

I can see this kind of episode happening to me.

And soon.

43 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Ethics Dunces, U.S. Society

43 responses to “Ethics Dunce: Hawaiian Airlines

  1. dragin_dragon

    Last time I flew anywhere, I was charged $10 for a scotch on the rocks. That airline is now out of business, and taking charters only. Guess why?

  2. Alex

    Re: 25 cent bag. I live minutes from one of these wonderful cities where the government knows better than you do, and by law grocery stores are required to charge you a quarter for each plastic bag. They can’t pay it for you and thay can’t call it a tax (which it pretty much is). You have to see it, pay it, and be punished for killing the environment with your consumeristic habits. This being Sacramento I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s waht you ran into – or maybe it was just the regular crappy airport shop experience.

    • Thomas W

      In the UK, it’s been the law for “large” retailers (over 250 employees) to charge for a plastic bag, likewise for environmental reasons, since October 2015. Interestingly, and I only know this because I just looked up the details, retailers in airports are one of the exemptions (though there’s nothing to stop them charging if they wish). Source

    • In China, most stores charge for a bag. The point is to encourage you to bring their own, but even then they are yi jiao (almost $.02). This isn’t really related to the case here, but a point of observation. I don’t know if it is fair to call it a breach in ethics to charge you something you don’t necessarily know about. There has to be other examples.

    • Pennagain

      San Francisco’s is only 10 cents, and it was voted in on a referendum.

  3. Wow.
    Wouldn’t it be easier in the long run to give each passenger a menu type list showing the charges for what used to be included in the standard plane fare?

    I think the days are not far off when we’ll see passengers boarding with three layers of clothes and a picnic basket. Third world travel.

    • dragin_dragon

      As long as airlines are allowed to get away with this to boost profits, it will continue. Unfortunately, they have us over a barrel and they know it. Travel by rail is…well, Amtrac, which may or may not go where you need to go. Road trips, at least for me, are prohibitive. I live in South Central Texas, and my nearest relatives are in Jacksonville, Florida and Davis, California. The only way to get to either place in a reasonable amount of time is by air. Needless to say, we don’t see our families very often.

    • Alex

      I did that once traveling on Ryanair for a 2 week European vacation. 4 layers of clothing plus a backpack stretching at the seams. I even splurged the 15 euros for early boarding.

    • John Billingsley

      On the Hawaiian Airlines web site there is a menu, the Pau Hana cart, listing items available for in-flight purchase. A blanket and pillow are $10.

  4. Chris marschner

    Perhaps we need to see what the airport vendors are paying for rent. If they are paying a premium for their retail airport space we should not use tax dollars for improvements to these parts of the airport. If reasonable market rents are charged then we need to negotiate a royalty for those establishments charging outrageous prices.

  5. Wayne

    Well maybe he should have said to the flight attendent (with a John Wayne voice) “Well, aloha smartypants”!!

  6. RBWitkowsky

    What a fiasco, no common sense, besides the lack of kindness! The price charge yet another example of today’s Corporate Greed, very different from those times decades ago when meals, soda pop, and blankets were free on flights, and prices were much more reasonable at airports. Have not previously thought about it, but now wonder what precipitated such a change. Hope some rich executive at HA reads your post, and still has a little bit of decency to think about some policy improvements.

  7. John Billingsley

    Looks like the person who made that decision hadn’t been taken out behind the woodshed enough to teach him how to be polite to his elders.

    • Or anyone. Does it really matter how old the passenger was? What if a mother said, “My baby is turning blue–can I have a blanket?”

      • dragin_dragon

        Nope. Take it from me, his age is irrelevant. Next person who says to me “We have to respect our elders, our senior citizens” gets a a shot in the mouth. I’m old, and I’m disagreeable; I’m neither stupid nor dead. (Paraphrased from ‘Outland, Frances Sternhagen (also a senior citizen)…”I’m disagreeable; not stupid”.

  8. Arthur in Maine

    I fly a lot for business, and I’m old enough to remember the days when flying was such a rarified experience that any male who wasn’t wearing a necktie was viewed with deep suspicion. Of course, back then, smoking was permitted on flights too, and I don’t miss either of those aspects of flight. But back then, the airlines were tightly regulated and when two airlines few the same routes, they competed on the basis of service and customer experience – because they were forced, by the government, to charge the same price for the ticket.

    I’m torn on this. i am somewhat sympathetic to the airlines, which do just fine when economic times are good but which can lose money by the tankerload when the economy is poor, or some idiot does something which causes fuel prices to skyrocket.

    I say SOMEWHAT, because the airlines have sufficiently consolidated that they’ve reduced competition to manageable levels, and have gotten so smart about hedging fuel costs and yield management with regard to pricing that they’ve eliminated a LOT of their risks.

    There are airlines that still do a great job. Southwest is probably my favorite; their fares are reasonable, and they treat their customers with respect. I also like JetBlue, and will usually opt for them only because they offer reserved seating with an option to purchase a seat with extra leg room, which is mighty nice if you know your computer bag will be at your feet.

    The airlines have gotten VERY good at squeezing every last penny out of passengers. From my perspective, passengers actually own a LOT of the reason for this. Everyone likes a deal; many people select airline tickets on the basis of price.

    This has led to airlines like Spirit and Allegiant, who lure you in with a cheap ticket and charge you out the wazoo for everything else – including carry-on baggage. Frontier does the same thing, though you CAN purchase extra services. Delta and United recently began selling “basic economy” tickets that mean you’re getting a cheap ticket but essentially promised a middle seat.

    So from my perspective, a big part of the problem is that we as consumers come in with certain expectations of our inflight experience, and receive something else. To be fair, when airlines change policies, they usually don’t make the changes easy to find (or understand – another reason I like Southwest’s approach. They’re straightforward).

    But airlines ARE businesses, and ultimately, we as consumers have the ability to choose which airlines with which we’ll do business; very few cities are served by only one airline.

    Air travel really is an area of caveat emptor. In the rare cases I fly somewhere for fun, I’ll go Southwest for the pricing and the near-guarantee of a pleasant cabin crew. If flying on business, I now write my client contracts such that “economy plus” or better seating, plus baggage check fees (if not included in economy plus) on all flights longer than 90 minutes. It’s a condition of my services, and is non-negotiable unless they sweeten the pie some other way.

  9. Paul Compton

    We all have to take some responsibility for this situation. I’m talking about the price gouging, not the stupidity of turning a flight around and calling the law.

    We foolishly always want the cheapest of everything. Not just flights, everything. The result is that airlines have to advertise the lowest price they possibly can or the cattle will invariably go in another truck. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about a flight, a building or a road, or pretty much anything else. Public money, for example, HAS to go to the lowest tenderer, and we wonder why the roads fall to pieces after the first year!

    A friend who had a vegetation control company – no, I’m not talking about a one person lawn care business, confided that he was consistently loosing big contracts to a competitor who tendered prices so low that he could not possibly meet the tender requirements, let alone make a profit. The competitor simply didn’t have any intention of meeting the requirements of the contract. Yes, they should have been forced to; wanna bet that happened? What do you think happened to the ethical contractor in the meantime?

    I’m guilty of going cheap too. I fly my regular hops on one of the cheapest airlines where you have to buy everything except a – a as in one (1) – glass of water. Why, to save money, and because I can live for two hours without a movie or lousy food.

    Where this all falls down of course is that that airline undoubtedly bought their aircraft from the lowest tenderer!

    Coffee, however is a different matter. I pay more for good beans. Life is to short for instant coffee!

  10. Reading this, I’m glad to be soon leaving this dimension.

  11. Anonymous Coward

    I am fully confident that if something like this happened to you, your reaction would be…adequate to make the national news level.

  12. Mrs. Q

    Maybe the airline could have a free “crappy public use” pile of blankets & a $12-20 “mostly nicer” version. Everyone wins!

    • Fleas in the public version, or is it smallpox?

      Man am I in a strange mood today, to even have had that connection!

      I hate air travel, more so as I have gotten older

  13. Rich in CT

    If I were that pilot, I would have dumped that crew soon after the fuel…

  14. Everybody seems to be giving the “woodshed” guy a pass. But “behind the woodshed” is associated with spankings, not debates. You go behind the woodshed to avoid witnesses.

    It is an ethical duty of every adult passenger to not interfere with a flight getting from Point A to Point B. So lodge your objection to the price politely, and otherwise shut up and either pay the $12 or be a little cold. The flight attendant you are giving a hard time to did not set the price, and the passengers around you want nothing to do with any kind of conflict.

    Completely agree re: the airline and price gouging, but that does not excuse the passenger.

    • Except that “behind the woodshed” means literal spankings today like “he ripped him a new one” means actual mayhem. It wasn’t a threat, and posed no threat. If the listeners were ignorant, it isn’t is fauult, and he wasn’t even talking about them. Nor is he prevented from expressing his objections to being virtually held up. If the staff turned down the heat so everyone would pay 20 bucks, could he complain then? The passenger wasn’t out of line to complain and the complaint was justified. The airlines both caused the complaint wit its policies, and wildly over-reacted to what he said.

      He deserves no blame at all. And I bet they change that charge.

      • Steve-O-in-NJ

        I bet they don’t. Most folks will read that article and decide to keep their heads down to avoid being the one who inconvenienced everyone. Thankfully I fly very infrequently.

      • “Behind the woodshed” is ambiguous but for the sake of argument lets grant your point that it was most reasonably construed as not being a threat, even though none of us were there to judge the tenor of it.

        What about the Golden Rule, Jack? The other passengers reasonably expect passengers to not start altercations, even verbal ones. And absent a genuine emergency, nobody has the right to cause a disturbance by raising their voice. Period. Deliberately escalating an argument because you don’t want to shell out $12 at best inconveniences everybody within earshot, and at worst, risks the result that happened here.

        Do you think you would feel the same way about Mr. Woodshed if you had been on the flight? I doubt it.

        Unless there is a safety issue passengers should be free to sleep or do what they will without a mid-flight disturbance. Like most passengers I don’t want to hear about other passengers’ gripes with the airline or the flight attendant. We all know the airlines charge exorbitant amounts for in-flight stuff. Either pay the money or not, but either way do it quietly. Bitch all you want once you land.

        • I don’t know where you get the idea that passengers are obligated to put up with abuse, rude service, gouging or anything similar without complaint, Dan. I’ve protested mid-flight many times, and will continue to do so. One should not be so obstreperous in one’s objections that it endangers passengers or forces a flight diversion, but this guy didn’t cross that line (as the police confirmed.) Golden Rule? I WANT passengers to make bad policies known, otherwise they won’t change.

          My biggest protest? It was when I had a two small carry-ons, and a steward told me I couldn’t store both in the overhead compartment. “One has to go under the seat ahaed of you,” he said. “Nope,” I said, putting both overhead. “I checked my large bag, and paid your absurd charge, precisely so I would have leg room by not having to fill up the space under the seat. I have a bad hip. My two carry-ons are both soft and both small, and take up about a fourth of the space that any of these huge rollerboards do. This is basic common sense and fairness. I’m putting these overhead.”

          Two passengers applauded. The attendants left me alone.

  15. Other Bill

    Crews usually, upon request, have the pilots warm up the cabin. I have no idea why airplane cabins are usually suitable for hanging meat. Maybe warmer cabins consume more fuel.

  16. Pennagain

    Cabin temps were never warm as I recall, but the very cool ones were for the air flow (1) to clear the cigarette smoke out, (2) to reduce the smell of vomit, and (3) for the longer flights and still today, simply to do the same for group body odor in a confined space. If you think about a hundred people sweating, alcohol breathing, food odors, baby burps (from either end), or just plain bad breath being recirculated for several hours in a sealed room, you wouldn’t enjoy the temperature at “room” level, much less at “warm.” I haven’t flown for many years — and glad of it, to hear the reports since 9/11 — but I also recall being comfortably warm in the conditioned air … because I always wore extra layers of clothing to avoid extra bulk in the suitcase and more sleeping comfort.

    I never requested a blanket after that week in June 1967 when our PanAm flight, en route to Idlewild from New Delhi, was forced (requested firmly) down in Beirut because we were about to fly into the middle of the Six-Day War. I took into the hangar the blanket I had wrapped around myself, not knowing it came with passengers as well. I had never felt a bed-bug bite before, but I was already itching wildly in several places. It took the greatest self-control I have ever achieved in my life to not start squirming and scratching in front of the fully armed soldiers as an officer examined my passport. Lucky for me, as not for other passengers who were further detained, he didn’t recognize my name as Jewish, and I was released back to join the others after about half an hour. It wasn’t until many years later, exchanging can-you-top-this bedbug stories with a friend, that I realized I had left at least some of the little monsters with the soldiers who had confiscated the blanket. After that, no more blankets, not even at home.

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