I’ve been a captain at a major airline for over 25 years now, which is why this involuntary deplaning of a United Express passenger is both sad business and not at all surprising. Here’s why.
First, at most airlines passenger service has become, for management, an irrational but deliberate choke point in the airline flight operations. And here’s the resulting death blow to passenger service: at the gate, in the heat of the departure time battle, the airlines field their lowest paid, least experienced workers and impose the highest, most rigid constraints–close the aircraft door, dispatch the revenue unit.
They arm these hapless, stressed-out workers with little or no authority–just do what you’re told. Typically, the worst circumstances exist “after hours,” meaning after 5pm when airport and airline managers are gone for the day.
Then the hourly-paid, often contract workers are left with little authority, no flexibility (SOMEONE would deplane at the right price point–but there’s a typically standing cap) and have little recourse other than to call for law enforcement. Often, once force is used, the “customer service” results are not favorable.
Looking for blame? Look to the top airline pooh-bahs, the passenger service managers, airport operations budget directors, regional managers, and passenger service supervisors who slash passenger service budgets to the bone, then rigidly dictate time constraints that MUST be adhered to by the lowest-rung hourly folks who work the non-office hours and deal with the very real passenger stand-offs that occur at the airport–not on any airline management spreadsheet.
This fragile, marginally adequate cost/service structure works adequately when everything is running perfectly at the airport, which it seldom does. Throw in delays, overbooking, last minute crew deadhead requirements and ultimately, involuntary deplaning plays out in flesh-and-blood realtime.
Then passengers lose, the passenger service agents lose and ultimately, the flight crew loses too: we’re all just trying to safely move the metal–once the jet is boarded. I’m ready to sort out the cabin battles, once we’re off the ground. As a captain, I’m not here to undo the budget-based inadequacies of passenger service planners at airline headquarters, nor am I allowed to: airline managers have consistently tried to limit crew authority to only once the jet is underway.
Great. Marketing, sales, promotions, reward levels, unit pricing? They all derive and survive from cost-driven spreadsheet logic at airline headquarters. And why does that work?
After all the howling about the United Airlines fiasco becomes passe on social media–give it about 5 mores days–passengers will be all about the cheapest airfare once again.
That’s just how it works. Please take your seats and prepare for a bumpy ride.