United Airlines violence toward passenger: how should we respond?

United Airlines' not-so-friendly skies

United Airlines’ not-so-friendly skies

One of the most talked-about news stories this week is how United Airlines “bumped” a passenger from its Chicago to Louisville flight on Sunday, and then literally bumped him off the plane when he refused to leave. As at least one writer explained clearly, the United episode is a result of the oligopoly that airlines have, with government approval of laws, rules and mergers that give airlines economic, and even physical, power over passengers. Given this airline power, the question becomes, how should consumers and voters respond? Here are a few ideas:

Make a stink. That’s being done right now, as United is being dragged through the mud on social media, and seeing its stock price take a hit. Two things that are sure to get a company’s attention and change its behavior are bad P.R. and a decline in its stock price. There are sure to be petitions against United’s behavior popping up as well.

Push for high-speed trains. At least where cities are not too far apart (for example, the Northeast Corridor, Los Angeles to Las Vegas or San Francisco, Miami to Orlando, etc., high-speed train travel could be very advantageous to travelers, and provide competition to the airlines. However, as we have seen around the world, high-speed (and even lower speed) rail infrastructure requires government involvement, due its expense and giant scale. This automatically makes it a political issue, requiring both political pressure and smart voting choices by the public.

Take shorter trips and do them by car. If you’re planning a vacation and were going to fly, perhaps you can save money and grief by driving, if the distance is short enough, or even planning a shorter trip instead. While automobile travel isn’t perfect for everyone, it has several advantages, including cheaper cost, especially if there are two or more people traveling, and freedom in being able to stop or take detours when you want. While you might not be the next victim of overbooking, those airport security lines are not too fun either.

Teleconference more for business meetings. There are of course plenty of occasions where face-to-face business meetings are crucial. But there are surely circumstances where they are not. Business owners and executives have many options for themselves and their employees to have high-quality teleconferences, ranging from tailored products to widely available services like Skype. The United Airlines incident is a powerful reminder that using such video conference options not only can result in huge cost savings, but it can reduce travel hassles as well.

Elect better representatives. The airlines’ ability to overbook flights and remove passengers, as well as their mergers giving consumers fewer choices, is neither an accident nor a natural law. It is a result of decisions made by lawmakers and policy makers, with plenty of input and donations from the airlines themselves. Just as such laws and rules were passed, they can be changed. Incidents like the United Airlines passenger beat-down provide an opportunity for consumers and voters to pressure their representatives to make changes, and, when elections come around, to vote for and support candidates who have a record of acting on behalf of people more than corporations.

Sell stocks or funds you might own in badly-behaving airlines. Companies should not be rewarded with our investments for their bad behavior.

Choose better-behaving airlines for your travel. While the above-mentioned oligopoly situation often limits our air travel choices, a situation like the United Airlines episode sometimes highlights companies that behave better. In this case, it will not be surprising to hear from other airlines which will commit to more customer-friendly practices. For example, Southwest Airlines has put up a funny ad taking aim at United, with the slogan “We beat our competitors. Not you.” Where possible, we can use our own spending to reward better-behaving companies and punish the ones who show that they don’t care about us. This goes not just for airlines, but for all companies.

Photo by Glenn Beltz, used under Creative Commons license. https://is.gd/FgrsDL

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