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United Airlines fiasco brings into light lamenting customer service of America's airlines

Editor: zhenglimin 丨Xinhua

04-12-2017 07:36 BJT

NEW YORK, April 11 (Xinhua) -- A 30-second video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight has brought into light the lamentable, sometimes even "awful" customer service of America's airline industry that suffers a serious decline in competitiveness, U.S. experts say.

The disturbing video that went viral on social media Sunday evening showed the bloodied passenger, a 69-year-old doctor of Asian descent, was dragged off the plane by a Chicago Aviation Department security officer at the O'Hare International Airport after refusing to give up his seat as required by the crew.

"While the law may be on the side of the airline, it seemed to fail miserably in human terms," said writer and filmmaker Paul Ratner in his article carried by bigthink.com on Monday.

It is not unusual for U.S. airlines to bump travelers from overbooked flights.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, almost half a million passengers of major U.S. airlines got bumped last year, but most of them volunteered to lose their seats in return for credits for future flights. Travelers who do not volunteer also get something in return for being bumped.

"No matter what argument it could have had with the man, who remained peaceful - this is an atrocious resolution." Ratner wrote. "With a recent national survey showing that 2/3 of Americans experienced 'customer rage' in the past year due to poor customer service, it's safe to say this issue is not confined to United."

Ratner described the episode as a sign of "the demise of customer service" which is "an American institution, a myth that actually often approached reality in the service industry, a proud standard respected around the world."

"The latest United debacle is unlikely to be the last time airlines hit the news for appalling behavior," noted Arwa Mahdawi, a writer and brand strategist based in New York, in her commentary on theguardian.com.

Back in 2008, United Airlines forced a musician to put his guitar in baggage. Despite its owner' s strong protest, the airline refused to allow the 3,500-dollar custom Taylor guitar in the passenger cabin, citing Federal Aviation Administration rules.

The musician, Dave Carroll, witnessed his guitar getting tossed around while sitting captive in coach class. The guitar was severely mangled when he picked it up, yet United Airlines refused to pick up the tab, or even seriously register his complaint.

The experience prompted Carroll to write a song titled "United Breaks Guitars", which has got more than 16 million views over the years on YouTube.

"Airlines across the world appear to be engaged in a race to the bottom when it comes to customer experience, yet America' s airlines are exceptionally awful," Mahdawi said.

"For far too long airlines have been allowed to treat their customers in a way no other business would be allowed to get away with. It' s time that passengers demand more regulation and show airlines that this behavior really doesn' t fly," she said.

Last Saturday, a group of Chinese reporters also got stuck at the Ft. Lauderdale airport, Florida, as Delta abruptly canceled its evening flight to New York and told most passengers they wouldn' t be able to fly until Monday morning.

As the airline declined to reimburse any accommodation cost incurred by the flight cancellation, citing "Mother Nature" as the reason for travel disruption, the reporters had to rebook a Sunday afternoon JetBlue flight. But then it took them four hours to get back their already checked baggage.

"You were lucky enough. We have been stranded here for two days, and someone has been looking for their baggage for over eight hours," another Delta passenger told the reporters at the extremely chaotic scene.

"Thanks to deregulation and industry consolidation, the power relationship between airlines and customers is dramatically skewed in airlines' favor," Mahdawi said. "Carriers can basically do whatever they like and get away with it. After all, what are you going to do? Take a bus?"

"...We expect airlines to be awful. And low expectations are lucrative; while airlines like to cry poor to justify incessant cost-cutting, last year global airlines made profits of 35 billion dollars," she said.

The industry-wide of practice of ticket oversale, which the United episode brought to light, is "just one example of the airline industry' s hubris at work".

Mahdawi explained that in theory, overbooking should be good for everyone. It ensures that more seats are full and should help drive ticket prices down. "However, there aren' t enough regulations in place to protect customers from overbooking, which means airlines can deny boarding to passengers without offering adequate compensation."

Ratner echoed Mahdawi's view that America's airlines enjoy some sort of monopoly now. "This is what happens when there are only a few companies in the market. Customer service goes down the drain. Prices are unreasonable."

"And now you can even get beaten up. This is also in an industry that U.S. taxpayers supported via a government bailout, with the once-beloved United getting the largest chunk of the money," Ratner said.

Over the last few years the Gulf Carriers - Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates - have been making inroads into the American market, Mahdawi said. These airlines put more of an emphasis on customer service and the threat of competition has caused much uproar amongst the big American carriers.

"Rather than attempting to better their own service and compete in that regard, however, American airlines have been looking to their government to try and stifle competition - claiming that they can' t possibly compete with Gulf carriers because they have more money," she said.

In February the CEOs of American Airlines, United and Delta asked to meet with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss "the massive subsidization of three state-owned Gulf carriers - Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates - and the significant harm this subsidized competition is causing to US airlines and US jobs."

Ironically, an annual report on U.S. airlines' quality, released Monday by researchers at Wichita State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said airlines are getting better at sticking to their schedules and are losing fewer bags and their customers seem to be complaining less often.

Many passengers may have trouble believing those conclusions, however.

"People don't look at the numbers," Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State and co-author of Monday's report, told the local media. "They just know what happened to them, or they hear what happened to other people."

More broadly, a statistical analysis of government data "really doesn't take into consideration how the customer is treated," said Bryan Saltzburg, an executive with travel site TripAdvisor LLC. "How comfortable are they on the plane? How helpful is the staff? What' s the value for what the customer paid?"

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