As Passengers, Let’s Pick Our Battles

Let me preface this by saying that this article is in no way a defense of the recent shenanigans that we’ve seen from the legacy carriers: United, American, and Delta. Thanks to social media, over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a number of instances that have underscored major issues that the airlines need to address. These include:

  • Failures to implement common-sense protocol/problem-solving (it’s time to let people go to the freaking bathroom when there’s an emergency)
  • Inability to diffuse situations without them blowing up (crew members need to acquire better negotiating skills)
  • Drastic measures taken to respond to minor situations (“let’s kick (or drag) everyone off the plane!”)
  • Major PR failures when it comes to responding to these situations (Twitter 101 could’ve really helped some airlines)
  • A general attitude toward passengers that they are dispensable (passengers may move in herds but they aren’t animals)
  • Resorting or threatening to resort to law enforcement when there’s no cognizable security threat from an unhappy passenger

This last point is an issue that bothers me the most and I think it’s endemic to the airlines. It’s one of the major contributing factors to why we have thousands of people running scared through airports and walking on egg shells since they are afraid of any sort of confrontations with crew members.

We’ve already seen airlines working to change some of these things. United has vowed to change several of their policies, such as limiting the use of law enforcement when there is no security threat. American showed they were capable of responding to a PR disaster by taking responsibility for a situation. While those are steps in the right direction, we’ve still got quite a ways to go.

But as the “tide” begins to shift, I think a lot of passengers are starting to feel more empowered, especially with the threat of broadcasting crew member/law enforcement misconduct across the world via social media.

This is a both a good and a bad thing.

It’s a good thing because we might finally get to a point where passengers aren’t constantly running scared through airports, often horrified by the thought of a confrontation with a crew member since it will inevitably involve the threat of bringing in law enforcement. This “private security/mafia style” approach to handling customer service disputes is abysmal and needs to end for the betterment of travelers everywhere.

As more and more episodes of misconduct are broadcasted to the world, airlines will (hopefully) devote more resources to ensure that they don’t become the next viral story of passenger injustice and this could lead to a better passenger experience.

But this new empowerment can be a bad thing as we all know some passengers can be unreasonably stubborn at times. And this is what I wanted to talk about.

I think we need to start picking our battles more wisely as we travel.

Let’s take one more look at the Dr. Dao situation. I know some will take issue with me pointing this out, but let’s be 100% honest, the entire situation could have been avoided if Dr. Dao just got up and stepped off the plane. Yes, I understand it wasn’t fair or justified what happened to him and the actions by United and the officers involved were reprehensible. But from a practical standpoint, the entire situation would’ve never happened if Dr. Dao just chose to step off the plane.

After the “Dragging seen around the world” took place, I read people saying how “that could’ve been me.” But I couldn’t have felt more different. I know with 99.999% certainty that if I were in that situation I would’ve stepped off the plane when asked. I would’ve been upset about the inconvenience, probably voiced that on social media, and (as an attorney) possibly even looked into my legal rights after I was off the plane.

But, even on my worst day, I wouldn’t have sat in my seat and told them that they’d have to take me to jail to get me off the plane.

Again, let me be clear, this is not a defense on any level for United. And it’s not even an attempt to place blame on Dr. Dao for what happened to him. Nobody would’ve expected to be beat and dragged off the plane and he certainly didn’t deserve that treatment.

I just don’t see the need to cause a protracted confrontation in that type of situation. In other words, I don’t see why you would pick that battle. 

By doing so, you’re likely going to cause a delay to your flight and possibly other flights. You’re also going to cause a lot of grief to other passengers, the crew, and so on.

Just imagine if they had eventually peacefully removed Dr. Dao off the plane after an hour and a half. Would a protracted stand-off been worth it?

I think situations that warrant these type of “stand-off” confrontations with crew members should involve more egregious behavior than being told you were randomly selected to give up your seat. For example, maybe you see a crew member exhibiting blatant racist behavior or making disparaging remarks to someone based on their religion.

In these situations, I see the justification in taking a stand since it’s a matter of personal dignity. And in that respect, I think it mirrors how we should respond when we witness injustices like prejudice, homophobia, etc. in the general public. We should act for the sake of a greater good and a better society by voicing our protest, even if it comes at a cost.

But when a crew member asks you to do something (mostly) reasonable like get off a plane or give up a carry-on to be checked, let’s tap the brakes before jumping into “you’re going to have to carry me off this f***** plane!” mode.

Even if the treatment is unfair or the airline is not following procedure the way you believe they should be, unless there’s some kind of egregious conduct taking place, I think we, as passengers, should just relax and take actions that won’t inconvenience a few hundred other passengers who have nothing to do with our problem.

I’m not saying we should just be walked all over. A good example of how to handle these situations just happened yesterday with a blogger from Angelina Travels. Due to the ineptness of United, a blogger was told to give up her upgraded seat (which her boarding pass had clearly assigned to her). She was spoken to condescendingly and even asked to step off the flight.

She first responded by attempting to speak reason to the agent by explaining that she was aware of the upgrade policy and even offered to take a seat with a broken light. United was not accommodating, however, and ultimately told her she would have to get off the plane if she didn’t get out of her seat. Eventually, despite the poor handling by the crew, she decided it wasn’t worth getting kicked off the plane and took a seat back in economy.

I think this is how situations should play out. You try to deal with the situation by confronting the crew member and telling them your “side of the story.” (Hopefully, they will at least hear you out and not resort to being rude/condescending.) After some reasonable back and forth, you choose to go with an option that doesn’t cause a huge disruption for you and every other passenger. And afterwards, you let it all out in whichever way best suits you.

I also think the recent situation on a Delta flight was a good example of how to conduct yourself for the most part. There, a passenger tried to have one of his kids sit in a seat booked for his other child who took a different flight and thus didn’t check in. Because that kid was a no-show, Delta filled that seat with another passenger.

The father was not happy about it and got into a confrontation with a crew member. The exchange was pretty serious but not overly intense. Ultimately, in my view, the dad was in the wrong initially but Delta went wayyy overboard by telling the man his kids would be sent to a foster home if he didn’t comply (and then kicking him off the plane when he agreed to comply). In the end, the man and his family got off the plane and booked another flight. Delta soon apologized for how poorly they handled the situation.

My point here is that as passengers we should do our part in minimizing unnecessary protracted confrontations unless they are warranted. Sure, stand your ground, explain your situation, and try to work things out. But if the airline it not willing to budge, this may not be a battle worth fighting for the sake of all of the other passengers you might affect.

Learning to pick battles is especially important for travelers. On any given trip, you encounter so many people from different walks of life trying to accomplish different things, that’s it’s expected that you might run into some confrontation of some sort. Someone cuts you in line. You get a rude or uninformed customer service. Etc., etc.

When in Norway I once bought a train ticket that I suspected may not have been the right one. When I inquired with an agent (who spoke great English) she informed me that it’d be just fine for my route. Turns out, it wasn’t and I ended up having to pay for the ride again (after dealing with an obnoxiously rude staff member who seemed to think I was trying to get a free ride).

I could’ve blown up on that second guy and I felt like doing it. But why? What would that accomplish? So I gave him the “yeah, yeah, whatever…” slipped my card through the reader and was off and into the airport within seconds. I soon let go of the situation and was off to my next destination.

I guess my final point here is that airlines have a lot of work to do. First and foremost they need to learn how to treat human beings with common sense and compassion. At the same time, we should not go around adding fuel to the fire by resorting to unnecessary stand-offs for minor infractions and waiting to pounce on any perceived wrong by crew members and have it blown up. Voice your complaints, yes. Try to work things out, yes. But for the sake of everyone who might be affected, let’s do our part to pick our battles.

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