Ethics Alarms reader Arthur in Maine correctly declared that yesterdays’ multi-stage fiasco involving United Air Lines, an abused passenger and the police would be the first Ethics Alarms “ethics plane wreck.” He was correct.
Now we learn that the entire mess was based on a lie: this was no boating accid….sorry…the flight was not “overbooked.” United just decided at the last minute to fly a flight crew to Louisville, so it bumped four passengers against their will and lied, saying that the flight was overbooked. In addition to the policy-defying employees, and the brutal police, passengers on the United Flight 3411 Ethics Plane Wreck, which has spare seats aplenty, include
1. The United staff responsible for the fiasco added to their ethics foul with this official summary of the incident, cited by the United CEO:
Summary of Flight 3411
. On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agents were approached by crewmembers that were told they needed to board the flight.
. We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.
. He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
. Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
. Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.
Verdict: Dishonest, self-serving and misleading:
1. Note the contradictory and dishonest phrasing. The “involuntary denial of boarding process” was no longer applicable, because the flight was fully boarded. You can’t deny boarding after you have granted it and it has been completed. There is no “revocation of boarding process,” which explains why this was so miserably handled.
2. How dare a passenger in a purchased seat who had been boarded, seated, stored his luggage and based his plans on continuing a flight resist a demand that he surrender his seat? I would have. What kind of submissive wimp wouldn’t? He was within his rights to object, and United staff should have been trained to handle such a situation and would have, if kicking such passengers off flights had an actual policy and procedures as this summary suggests.
3. Similarly, the more they harassed him, the more belligerent he became, which is not unreasonable. The United staff was being unreasonable. It just had power. The argument being made is that it is inappropriate to resist the abuse of power. Wrong. Welcome to America, jerks.
4. No choice? No choice but to call in the police and have them physically drag the man off the plane? That’s Rationalization #25. The Coercion Myth: “I have no choice!”
“When people say they had to behave unethically because they had no choice, it is almost always a lie. What they mean is that they didn’t like the choices they had, and taking the unethical option involved less sacrifice, less controversy, less criticism, less effort…in short, less courage, than doing the right thing. Ethics often requires pain; if making the ethical choice was easy, there would be no need to practice being ethical. You may decide that doing the right thing is too costly or requires more personal misery than you can bear—a lost job, a ruined reputation, financial capacity, punishment for breaking with tradition or rules—sometimes that is a reasonable choice. But you still had a choice, and you are still accountable for the choice you made”
As Ethics Alarms pointed out in the previous post, United had many choices. It could have let the increasingly distraught man alone, and found another passenger to unseat. It could have raised the bounty for surrendered seats to an offer no one could refuse. It could have found other transportation for the flight crew that apparently just showed up and demanded to board the flight: it was only a four hour drive to their destination.
2. Next, and sitting in First Class on this Ethics Plane Wreck, United CEO Oscar Munoz, just last month honored as PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year., which tells us how wretched his fellow CEO’s are in that department.
First, he released this statement:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United, I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
- How sensitive! United is upset because of the bad publicity, apparently. Awwww. Munoz does not mention how upsetting it was to the freaked out passengers, and especially the doctor who was bloodied and manhandled due to his employees’ incompetence.
- A passenger gets beaten up, he and three other passengers get kicked off a flight after they had been checked in and seated, everyone’s flight is delayed two hours, and Munoz is apologizing for some euphemism. What the hell does “re-accommodated” mean? Does it mean “deciding to treat passengers like crap on the bottom of our shoes”? This is a #9 or a #10 apology on the Apology Scale; I can’t decide which. You decide:
#9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.
#10. An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.
- Munoz has yet to apologize to the victim.
- “Further address the situation”? The previous “address” involved treating him like a fence-jumper at the White House. United humiliated him, caused him to be injured, and made him miss his flight. Unless Munoz has a Delorean, the situation was already “resolved”—horribly.
Next, Munoz wrote this letter to United employees, from which one would assume that the conduct of the airline was impeccable, and the problem was a “defiant” passenger. I’ll be interjecting in bold:
Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, [Why are you making statements about the episode before you know what happened?[ especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did [Why? WHY? He defied the officers because he had a ticket, a reservation, had paid his money, was seated on the plane, and was randomly fingered for ejection because someone had screwed up and not saved seats for a flight team, that’s why. He was being mistreated, disrespected and abused, that’s why!] to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees [Who, as you will see, were spinning like a top..]
As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane, [Oh, he was politely asked to do something that he shouldn’t have been asked to do, was he? Well, being polite while abusing someone doesn’t reduce the abuse. Nor was he “asked,” was he? When some one is truly “asked,” one has the option of saying, “No, thanks.” He was ordered to leave the plane.] refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. [It was not necessary to call the cops. It was necessary to find someone willing to leave in exchange for something of value. As soon as it was clear the man was upset, the kind, competent and rational response would have been to leave him alone.] Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. [ Really? United has procedures for randomly pulling paying, seated customers off of planes when they insist that they cannot afford the delay? And the procedure is “Call in the Gestapo and have them rough him up”?] While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right. [United did nothing wrong! It was all the passenger’s fault!]
I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation. [ Wait, didn’t you just say that treating an elderly, agitated Asian-American man as if he were an escaped serial killer and causing him to be exposed and humiliated on a viral video was “above and beyond”? Now you’re saying that treating customers with respect and dignity is “at the core of who we are”; are you saying that the passenger was treated with respect and dignity? Do you even know what you’re saying?]
The letter is ass-covering, contradictory, misleading weasel-word doubletalk.
3. Next passenger: former United Airlines parent United Continental Holdings’ Chief Executive Gordon Bethune––Bethune headed Continental Airlines for a decade prior to 2010, when Continental completed a $3 billion merger with United. His comments and attitude point to an industry-wide culture of arrogance, disrespect for passengers, and a lack of service orientation. He, like the United staff and Munez, blamed the passenger, saying:
“Certainly, it’s a very emotional scene. It doesn’t have to have that kind of immature reaction when you’re asked to leave the plane. You should handle it in a different way. The man obviously didn’t want to go, like a child that didn’t want to leave.”
Defending United staff and the security officers, Bethune said they were simply following protocol for overbooked flights and acted appropriately:
“They try to do a professional job. They’re very professional people. But not everybody on the plane is professional and they can create a scene if they want to.”
Wait, there’s a profession for passengers who get abused by airlines and police?
Bethune is engaging in a particularly ugly version of blaming the victim.
The passengers option consisted of submitting to mistreatment and allowing United and the police to get away their misconduct, or making so much of disturbance that the either left him alone, or were going to be doomed to the fate of punishment by public opinion. His conduct was not very different than what protesters have done for centuries to make their grievances known when they are being forcibly removed: make noise, make it as difficult as possible, gain public sympathy.
4. The various industry commentators and business analysts who I saw interview on TV and in the media, who all shrugged off the incident as one that would be quickly forgotten. I heard one analyst after another say that the airlines know that price, not service matters, that United would suffer no fallout on the stock market, and that this was just the latest social media freakout, like the silly leggings episode, and would have no long-term effects.
Ha! that’s shows what they know. This is, and was easily identified as, a tipping point, the moment when people rush to their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” As I heard these smug fools, my mind kept jumping back and forth between that scene in “Network” and the running gag on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, with Lilly Tomlin portraying an incompetent, haughty, snorting operator and ending parody ads with the slogan, “We don’t care! We don’t have to care? We’re the telephone company!”
United’s stock is falling. its brand is mud. The Feds are investigating the incident, as they should. There are calls for Munoz’s resignation or firing—my bet is that he will not ride this out. The episode has even sparked international outrage.
There will be more boarding this metaphorical flight to ethics Hell before it is over.