Friday, September 22, 2017

Flying the Somewhat ‘Friendly Skies’

Recently I brought some business clients to visit a manufacturing facility in Missouri. While waiting at the gate in Bradley Airport, the United Airlines employee made an announcement: “This flight is over-sold, so we need two people to give up their seats.”

Oh my, I thought, didn’t the folks at United learn their lesson? Do they really want another viral video of someone being dragged off an airplane? Do they thrive on bad press?

The announcement continued: “If you agree to give up your seat, we will give you a $700 voucher toward future flights, plus a seat on the next available flight today to your destination.”

Hmm, 700 bucks? Not bad. But I noticed that no one went up to the counter to take the offer.
Five minutes later there was another announcement: “We still need two people to give up their seats, and we are now offering vouchers worth $1,000.”

Ooh, now this was getting interesting. Again, no one went up to the counter. I wondered how high the bidding would go.

Suddenly, I got nervous. It dawned on me that I had booked the flights for my group using a new option offered by United called “Basic-Economy.” This is not as opulent as “Basic.” Nor is it as luxurious as “Economy.” It’s the lowest of low, the no-frilliest of frills. I don’t even think the peanuts are free when you fly Basic-Economy. To give you an idea, if we were about to board a ship, Basic-Economy would be known as steerage, where the travelers spend the whole journey with bilge water up to their knees while fighting off rats.

Our Basic-Economy tickets put us in “Boarding Group 5” (many airlines stop at Boarding Group 3 for small planes), and our seat assignments were in the very last row. I wondered if this meant we were at the very bottom of the passenger list, and if no one stepped forward to trade their seats for the vouchers, then they might force me and at least one of my companions off the plane.

I huddled with my group. “OK,” I said, “If they try to kick us off this flight, everyone take out your smart phones and video everything. We’ll need a good clip of a United employee being rude. When it goes viral, we’ll be in a much better position to threaten a lawsuit. And let me do all the talking because, one, I bought the tickets and, two, since I’m by far the oldest one in our group, it’ll look even more horrible when they give a hard time to a befuddled gray-haired schlub. Oh, and reason number three,” I added, “I’ll probably screw up trying to put my phone into video mode, so you younger guys take care of filming everything.”

I started rehearsing what to say. “Really United?!” I’d exclaim indignantly, “After the PR nightmare you went through earlier this year, you’re STILL over-selling flights?!!”

Or maybe I’d plead through tears, “But you don’t understand. I need to get to Missouri for my dear grandmother’s funeral. I just have to pay my last respects to Mee-maw.” On second thought, that one won’t work, since they could do some research and discover I don’t have a Missouri Mee-maw.

Just then a new announcement came over the PA system. The offer was now up to $1500 per seat. Wow, getting bumped off the flight didn’t sound so bad anymore. Then two young men went up to the counter to take the offer. No one was going to be dragged off this flight after all. 

Our business trip to Missouri turned out to be quite routine. And if you were wondering, Mee-maw’s funeral was very touching.

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