Reflecting back on last year’s “Forcibly Remove A Seated Passenger From A Plane So A Staff Member Could Have The Seat” situation with United Airlines, on top of the previous “#Leggingsgate” situation with United Airlines made me think back to a time, not really all that long ago, when passengers weren’t made to feel like profitable cattle with no rights, and when, if something happened that was out of the ordinary and potentially inconveniencing, the airline did everything they could to keep you comfortable and, even if you were not truly happy, at least you knew they had tried their best.
In April 1998, I was still living in Staten Island, NY and was going down to Walt Disney World about 6 times per year – usually for long weekends, but occasionally for a whole week at a time. Newark Airport was my airport of choice to fly down to Orlando and I would usually fly via Continental Airlines or Delta. The week before Easter of 1998, I took a long weekend trip and Continental was my carrier.
I usually would love to stay at Disney for longer than however long my trip at the time was, but in this case, I had some other things going on:
- I had what was later diagnosed as a massive sinus infection and besides not being able to smell or taste a thing, I also was experiencing some of the fatigue that happens when you have an infection.
- My 93-year-old great-uncle, who had been something of a surrogate grandfather to me after his brother (my grandfather) had passed away when I was 6, had been hospitalized and I was concerned about him.
- My father had been diagnosed with cancer 4 years earlier, and the cancer had since spread. He was scheduled to get an MRI the next day and I was very worried about the results.
So on that particular day, all I wanted to do was go home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Our plane to Newark took off without a hitch but thanks to my then-undiagnosed sinus infection, after flying a few minutes, I started experiencing some massive pain in both of my ears – almost enough to make me cry. Once we got high enough and the pressure equalized, the pain improved a little bit but then all of a sudden we started descending again. What the heck? More ear pain and more near tears. Anyway, we arrived back at Orlando Int’l Airport, where the pilot told us our plane’s landing gear would not retract while we were in the air, so we had to make an emergency landing back in Orlando so it could be fixed.
That was around 1pm or so. The flight crew said they hoped it could be fixed quickly, so they would keep us on the plane. At 2pm, they allowed us off the plane because whatever quick fix they hoped would happen, wasn’t happening. So now they were trying to get us another plane. On a Sunday. During the week before Easter.
This whole time, our designated main contact was a Continental customer service employee whose sole focus was to keep us informed and, I think, to keep us in good spirits. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll call him Chris. Chris was wonderful. He was knowledgeable, he empathized with us, he had a good sense of humor, and he even knew how to de-escalate the passengers who appeared to be REALLY unhappy about this unfortunate turn of events. Whether it was a passenger who was forcibly removed from his seat to make space for United staff, or non-revenue passengers who were wearing leggings, can you imagine how much better United’s PR would be right now if they had had someone like Chris working on their team?
Anyway, at 3pm, Chris told us that he had some good news and some bad news and then some more good news. The good news was that they were going to have a new plane for us! YAY! The bad news was that it wasn’t going to be available until around 9pm that evening. Ugh. But the more good news was that each party would be issued a free hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport (it was inside the main terminal building of MCO) until 8pm AND each person would receive a $25 voucher to eat dinner anywhere we wanted at the airport. They unloaded our checked luggage so we could collect it (it was going to have to be loaded onto another plane anyway and that way if we wanted anything from our checked luggage, we would have access to it), told us our new flight number and which gate to go to later on that evening, and off we went to the Hyatt.
My fellow passengers’ emotions appeared to run the gamut from resigned to angry to everything in between. Personally, I was calm – just sad and anxious because I didn’t feel well and just wanted to go home to my ailing family members – but it was nothing that a good cry wouldn’t fix. And when I got to my assigned room at the Hyatt, cry I did. Hard. And then I took the best nap ever, followed by the best shower ever, followed by a meal at the Chili’s in the airport (which was only OK but that was my fault for eating at Chili’s).
The rest of the trip home went as planned. We all got to our new plane at 8:30pm and were in the air right around 9pm, as promised. I didn’t step foot into my house until just past midnight, but I didn’t care – I was home.
So yeah…with a bazillion opportunities to potentially drop the ball, Continental totally ROCKED that whole situation. So much so that I wrote to their then-CEO, Gordon Bethune, told him so, and sung the praises of Chris. And do you know what? Within 2 weeks, Mr. Bethune’s office wrote me back and thanked me. Again, more awesome customer service. All I have to say is that it was a sad day when Continental merged with and was eaten up by, of all airlines, United.
I realize that times have changed. Post-9/11 flying is nothing like pre-9/11 flying, people have changed in general, and it seems as if good customer service, including respect, understanding, empathizing, de-escalating, and making customers (regardless of how/if they paid for the service) feel like they matter, has become an expendable commodity for some companies. There are so, SO many things that United could have done differently so they wouldn’t be in these most recent predicaments. As Gordon Bethune said of the United incidents, “I’m sure there will be reconciliation … some effort to show they care about passengers,” and “I’m sure there will be a lot of discussion [at United] about how to handle this in the future.” And as United CEO Oscar Munoz has now FINALLY said, in his third apology in as many days, “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right. It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th. I promise you we will do better.”
We can only hope. And to their credit, there haven’t been as many United incidents with passengers recently, so we’ve got that going for us. We’ll see what the future holds.
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