Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Airlines, Crisis Communications 101, and Prohibited Speech


[Photo credit: frame from passenger video; CNN]
"The Friendly Skies" unfriendly expulsion of a paying customer from one of its planes April 9 (fortunately a plane still on the ground) has produced a plethora of complaints, comments, and constructive suggestions.

What seemed to me one of the more creative suggestions starts by accepting that the airlines are going to continue the business model of contracting with customers to perform something (air transportation between two designated airports at specified prices, times and dates) that the airline can unilaterally refuse to perform at any time -- up to and including immediately prior to a paying customer's boarding.

Given that assumption, the suggestion is that airlines require passengers to specify when buying a ticket the refund from the airline that will be necessary for them to agree to forfeit their seat at boarding time (a) if another flight is available that day, or (b) the next day (always including accommodations and meal vouchers if an overnight stay is required).
There are a number of issues raised by the events of April 9th.
Contents

Airlines as a Mode of Transportation

Load Factors and Bumping Passengers

What's the Law?

Prohibited Speech

Crisis Communications 101

What to Do?
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Airlines as a Mode of Transportation

Air travel has always been problematical. Prior to the Wright brothers, many designs (with flapping wings like birds and such), if set aloft from on high, simply ended in humiliating crashes. For the Wright boys, it involved their, ultimately successful, need to blend technology, engineering, and physics.

Today's commercial aircraft have solved most of those problems. When the weather's right, they seem capable of lifting the equivalent of one's high school gymnasium off the ground, enabling hundreds of complaining occupants to sit in chairs miles in the sky, covering in hours distances that, 200 years ago, would have required their ancestors months to traverse (as Louis C.K. has observed; Google: "louis ck complaining flying").

Notwithstanding this engineering accomplishment, airplanes and the companies that operate them, have become dysfunctional as a mode of transporting humans.

For starters, airlines, like farmers, are dependent on the weather -- albeit one wants clear skies and the other prays for rain. But the impact on passengers who need a timely arrival at a destination is the same when the planes don't fly, whether it's because of lack of crew, "mechanical difficulties," severe turbulence, or iced up planes and snow covered runways.

Then there are the lost bags, TSA screenings, and flight delays. Passengers buy a time-specific arrival. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they have to sleep on the floor of an airport overnight while the airlines try to sort out the cancelled flights, lack of crews, and backups in the national system caused by one airport's problems.

Wall Street's pressure for ever-increasing airline profits has encouraged the substitution of pretzels for meals, narrower seats and less leg room, extra charges for everything from bags to specific seats -- and the overbooking that results in bumping paying passengers from flights. (Fortunately, regulations prohibit the sale of "standing room only" passage.)

Load Factors and Bumping Passengers

Selling seats on departure-specific airplanes is a business like restaurants and motels. A grocery store may have fewer sales during severe thunderstorms, but the gallon of milk it doesn't sell today will be sold tomorrow. The revenue lost from today's empty airline seat, motel room, or restaurant table is more often gone forever than simply time-shifted to the next day.

No-show paying passengers contribute to this airline problem.

The airlines' response -- to sell more tickets than they have seats -- is not entirely irrational (though there are preferable alternatives and modifications). But predicting how many additional tickets should be sold is an inexact science. So they error on the side of selling too many, and then apply a marketplace approach to the paying passengers they refuse to board: How much money would it take to satisfy a bumped passenger with flying later -- or not at all? Usually something like $400-$800 is enough.

There are some questions regarding what happened prior to departure of United Express 4311 from O'Hare (Chicago) to Lexington, Kentucky, on April 9. Was the flight overbooked, or was the problem only created by a last-minute need for four seats for United crew members? Did the passenger in question board, get off the plane, and re-board? What is unambiguous, because documented on videotape, is that he was on the plane, sitting in his seat, when he was forcibly removed from his seat, dragged down the aisle, and taken off the plane by O'Hare security.

What's the Law?

In addition to federal regulations, the relationship between an airline and its passengers is governed by a contract (even though most passengers -- and in this instance even United personnel and executives as well -- may be unaware of its terms). There are two Rules (Rules 21 and 25) potentially applicable to the events of April 9th.

One rule deals with pre-boarding bumping; the other deals with the circumstances under which a seated passenger may be removed from the plane. The former is inapplicable because it is limited, by its terms, to the airline's rights prior to a passenger's boarding. The latter is inapplicable because it deals with itemized justifications for removing a seated passenger from a seat, such as severe illness, drunkenness, or other disruptive behavior -- a rule inapplicable by virtue of its spirit as well as its letter. See, John Banzhaf, "United Airlines Cites Wrong Rule For Illegally De-Boarding Passenger," LawNewz, April 11, 2017.

Prohibited Speech

The letter of the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, only applies to efforts to restrict speech by governmental units. For most of us, most of the time, any restraints on our speech come from social mores and norms (e.g., "that's not nice," or in days gone by, "I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap") -- or civil suits for such things as defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A subset of these informal standards involves instances in which what was said is deemed to be grounds for dismissal from a job. See, Nicholas Johnson, "Was It Something I Said? General Semantics and the Unacceptable Remark," Institute for General Semantics, New York City, October 30, 2010; Nicholas Johnson, "Quck Draw Harreld and Why Language Matters," December 17, 2015.

That could have been an issue in the United case, when United CEO Oscar Munoz's first response was a memo to United employees that included the following: "Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. 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." "Text of letter from United CEO defending employees," Washington Post/Associated Press, April 10, 2017. Not much better was his follow-up, including: "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers." Re-accommodate? Michael Hiltzik, "United Finds a New Way to Make Itself Look Awful, and Then its CEO Shows How to Make Things Worse," Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2017.

As it happened, this was about the same time that President Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, was explaining the missile attack on Syria as warranted because Assad had gassed his own people, which made him worse than Hitler. Nicholas Fandos and Mark Landler, "Sean Spicer Raises Outcry With Talk of Hitler, Assad and Poison Gas," New York Times, April 12, 2017, p. A13.

Crisis Communications 101

There are some relatively simple steps that public relations firms urge upon their clients confronting crises of various kinds. One is an illustration of the advice that when you find yourself in the bottom of a hole the first step is to stop digging. In this context, when an organization has done something horrible, and news of it has reached the public, the best strategy is for the top executive to respond with "immediacy, transparency, honesty and empathy." See, Nicholas Johnson, "Crisis Communications 101," February 14, 2011.

Instead of coming out with one statement displaying "immediacy, transparency, honesty and empathy," United's CEO produced three, each defensive and failing to improve on its predecessor (until his days-late expression of "shame"). "Read United CEO’s 3 statements on passenger dragged off flight," Boston Herald, April 11, 2017.

If it was an ill conceived tactic of United's public relations operation (and not just the product of a curious journalist working independently), I would find particularly despicable a corporate response of attacking the victim's personal reputation (like a rapist smearing the reputation of his victim) -- something having nothing whatsoever to do with the propriety of dragging the victim off the plane. Bruce Golding, "Doctor Dragged Off Flight Was Convicted of Trading Drugs for Sex," New York Post, April 11, 2017.

What to Do?

Imagine you have reserved a motel room, paid for by credit card, arrived, settled in and gone to bed. Imagine being awakened when all the lights go on, you see the manager standing there, and he informs you that you are going to have to dress and leave because he overbooked the motel that night.

Or consider the restaurant equivalent. You've made reservations for you and your partner. You arrive on time, are seated, and give the wait person your orders. Before the food arrives you are told you need to get up, put your coats on and leave, because the restaurant is overbooked that evening.

That behavior would be enough to put that motel, or restaurant, out of business.

Not so for the airlines apparently. Offer us the lowest fare and we'll take the risk that we'll be bumped (though not the risk that we'll be forcibly dragged from the plane once seated).

What were United's alternatives in this situation? There are a number that occur to me, and probably more that airline experts could come up with.
They could have done a reverse auction with all passengers: raising the amount they'd pay to a volunteer until one was found.

They could have avoided the issue by doing a better job of anticipating and managing crew location. If the crisis was the result of too few employees, possibly the cost of hiring more would have been worth it.

United is, after all, in the transportation of human bodies business. Chicago is their hub. Didn't they have a corporate jet available, or even a small United Express plane that could be spared for a couple of hours? No? Well how about a bus, limousine, or taxi? It's only 375 miles from Chicago to Lexington. What they chose to do delayed the flight two hours. The four crew members could have been driven there in a little over five hours.

Presumably even a United steely-eyed bean counter would see this as a matter of comparative cost. What would be the incremental cost of a 375-mile round trip in a corporate (or leased private) jet; or a limousine for the four crew members? So long as they could get a passenger to release his or her seat for less than that (or other alternatives) they'd pay the passenger and put the four crew members on the plane. Otherwise, they'd use the alternative. It's not that complicated.
But that's the past. What about the future?

They might consider changing their business plan that requires turning away paying customers, inconvenienced and upset.

On the assumption they are unwilling to change, they ought to build the practice into the contract and pricing. One way would be what's outlined at the top of this blog post: require that customers making reservations indicate ahead of time how much money it would take for them to voluntarily agree to be bumped.

Another might be to create a new, cheaper, bump-able class of ticket. That would be kind of like a life insurance contract: the company bets you're going to live and keep paying premiums; you bet you're going to die young. In the airline business: you bet the plane won't be full and you'll save on the fare; the airline bets it will be, you'll be bumped, they will owe you nothing, and the average fare per passenger will be higher.

And that's what I meant by, "There are a number of issues raised by the events of April 9th."

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