United Airlines Is Not Alone

By HELAINE OLEN


United Airlines found itself at the center of social media controversy this week, after a horrifying video of a doctor being forcibly removed from a coach class seat on one of its planes went viral. The man was, according to published reports, randomly selected to be bumped because the airline needed to transport four employees on the sold out flight. The doctor refused to leave, airline officials called law enforcement, and security dragged him, bloodied, off the plane.

It seemed, in the way these viral sensations frequently do, to capture something about the way we live now. All too often we feel powerless, both politically and economically. A 2015 Gallup poll found large majorities of Americans agreeing with statements like Congress “is out of touch with average Americans” and “focused on the needs of special interests.”

So what’s this got to do with United? Well, most of us don’t encounter the government on a daily basis. We do, however, live life as consumers. And our treatment is both increasingly disrespectful and reflective of our society’s growing income divide.
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Passengers waiting in line at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Credit Scott Olson/Getty Images


In 2017, it often seems that the customer is the least important part of the transaction — unless he or she is paying top, top dollar. Take medical care. While the wealthy can turn to the growing practice of concierge medicine, where for a fee of over a thousand dollars annually, their personal doctor will always return their calls promptly, the rest of us are ever more likely to be relegated to a narrow insurance network.

This great economic sort is on blatant display when we fly. The airlines are seemingly forever coming up with new and innovative ways to coddle an increasingly small group, while treating the majority of fliers with greater and greater contempt. United Airlines is all too typical. The airline recently debuted fold out beds for business travelers, complete with mood lighting, adjustable lumbar supports and bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue. But United’s coach class travelers are subjected to constant nickel and diming. Extra legroom is now an extra charge. So too, for travelers in the airline’s new “Basic Economy” fare class, is the ability to choose one’s seat when booking a flight or the ability to bring more than one small, personal tote or bag on the plane.

United’s initial apology for this most recent offense simply bolsters the case they are less than concerned with rank-and-file customers. The company — which reported $2.3 billion in net income last year — isn’t exactly issuing a heartfelt mea culpa. A spokesman told The New York Times, “we had asked several times, politely” for the man to leave his seat, as if that justified subsequent events. In a statement, Oscar Munoz, United’s chief executive officer, said he was sorry for “having to reaccommodate” the passenger and that the airline was working with authorities to find out what happened, but did not admit that allowing officers to physically manhandle a customer who was simply sitting in a coach seat hoping to get to his destination was, you know, wrong. A subsequent statement, issued on Tuesday, offered a much more full-throated apology.

The same dynamic plays out in our political lives. In a study published in 2014, Martin Gilens at Princeton University and Benjamin Page at Northwestern University found government policy and actions rarely reflected majority sentiment, but instead favored corporate interests and the wealthiest Americans. When congressional Republicans offered up a health insurance reform package earlier this year that would have covered fewer people than the Affordable Care Act, Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, initially defended it by claiming Americans needed to choose between spending on necessary medical care or buying an iPhone.

Meantime, the fabled 1 percent would have received an average tax cut totaling $37,000 if the legislation were fully enacted.

Don’t mistake me. There are a lot of other things you can take away from this sorry event.

There is the increased militarization of American life, with authorities reacting to common disputes in increasingly aggressive ways. There is a positive lesson, too, in that ordinary Americans have access to more potential publicity — and, hopefully, recourse — than ever before, courtesy of social media. Finally, there is a narrative of privilege at play. More than a few pointed out this contretemps would likely not have received as much attention if the unwilling passenger were poor or African-American. Others noted that the doctor, who is Asian-American, might have been treated differently by officers or airline staff if he were white.

But this isn’t an either-or situation. Yes, we can tell people who perceive themselves as privileged to get used to the second-class treatment those poorer than them have been receiving for a long time. But it seems like a better bet, both ethically and for the sake of our futures, to improve conditions for all.

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