Is the United Passenger Dragging Incident a Sign of American’s Social Divide?

There’s been a tremendous amount of media attention surrounding this incident, and I’ve spoken to many reporters about it.

I received one inquiry about using the story as a vehicle for talking about class division, the latest United Airlines incident is symbolic of the growing class divide that industries, such as the airline industry, help draw our attention and ire to. Or maybe the airline industry makes it most obvious, with physical distinctions between passenger classes clearly marked and touted.

I’m not sure this is a great example of class divide although it’s true that United prioritizes whom to bump based on fare paid and elite frequent flyer status.

In this case it was a doctor, married to a doctor, with four children that are doctors who got bumped. He’s reportedly won almost a quarter million dollars on the World Series of Poker tour. This isn’t an example of the downtrodden being abused by the system!

And airline elite status doesn’t belong to the rich, but to road warrior middle managers. First class on domestic flights isn’t the province of the rich. It’s nearly half free upgrades to those middle managers (a bit less on Delta), and the portion that’s sold for some amount is sold much less expensively than it used to be. The coach-first class divide is much smaller in price than it used to be, and also in service (with cutbacks).

So commercial flying in the US is largely a divide between the mostly middle class who fly and the upper middle flying up front. Needless to say, I won’t be included in the piece.

That said, maybe Basic Economy is a better allegory (if an imperfect-at-best fit for actual social divide).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The title of this piece is clickbait. You took one off-the-wall “inquiry” and turned it into a question rather than just laying it to rest definitively in the tile by writing something like, “No, United Passenger Dragging Incident is NOT a Sign of American’s Social Divide.” You’re better than that, Gary!

  2. I am not sure I agree about “class divide”, but I do think that the incident may say something about our anger as a society toward the “elites”.

    The reality is that every day we feel like we’re being ripped off by large corporations who talk about friendly skies, but do nothing to make them so. An airline can delay our flight for hours without consequence, but if we show up one minute late we are charged anywhere from $150 to the full cost of a ticket. They can change a schedule, but we can’t. They can charge us for baggage, but didn’t (until recently) have an obligation to send it with us for that fee. They can charge us for a seat, but can move us if they want.

    This incident showed the power dynamic between a large, unfriendly corporation and the little guy. The outrage is so pronounced because we believe that it could be anyone of us; we engage in that dynamic every day, in many ways (how about those banks?). The relationship is unbalanced, unpleasant, and entirely in favor of the company, not the consumer.

    That’s why we’re angry, and that’s why we’re outraged. So we should be.

  3. @tommyleo it wasn’t an ‘off the wall’ inquiry it was a major national publication, and I shared what I offered back to them. and ‘clickbait’ generally refers to a title that doesn’t match the content, which I don’t think applies here.

  4. This is one of the few internet outrages where liberals and conservatives were both on the same page. I believe liberal emotions were based on the corporation beating the man down (literally), and conservative emotions were based on rebellion and an easily-avoidable failure of the free market (scarcity not being solved by supply/demand, and instead by government coercion).

  5. @Pat,

    While I’d agree with most of your statement, I’m unsure how you think deregulated airlines are being coerced by the government. If anything, airlines have paid millions of dollars to lobbyists to coerce the government, instead. I feel you have it backwards. The Big 3 have formed an oligopoly post-deregulation through essentially colluding but not really colluding, but basically colluding. Leaving the government *out* of the equation is what got us to where we are now. Perhaps I’m misreading your statement.

  6. Liberals and Alt-Leftist are trying so hard to make this a class warfare or race issue and it’s just not.

  7. Gary, a little off topic but what do you make of the second sub-bullet on that slide – “expand sales through third party channels”? What is United getting at there, it is the opposite of what all the airlines have been doing for 20 years.

  8. And maybe more than being about class divide, it was about a pure lack of human compassion – both by the airline, the air marshalls and the other passengers. I’m appalled that when they started manhandling the doctor not one single person stood up and said stop, I’m getting off the plane, you can have my seat. Rather they sat there and watched it unfold. I would like to think we could all be a bit more compassionate toward one another regardless of the situation.

  9. @David since it’s a slide on segmentation, I believe they’re referring to selling ancillary products and services through third party channels – upsells, basically. So not about moving customers away from, but ensuring customers booking elsewhere can give United incremental revenue.

  10. So I first thought this was an article comparing United to American…then I realize *I think* you just meant “America” in the title

  11. What @DaninMCI says. It’s not about class, it’s about politics. If you side with the corporations and the corporatist state, as he does and this blog does, then United is (mostly, largely, generally in the clear) and the guy is just lucky he didn’t get charged with terroristic threats or entirely to blame. If you don’t, then you see United for what it is, a corporation that could’ve handled this by incurring some cost to themselves, but decided (incorrectly) to call in the cops to handle it for free.

  12. I do NOT think United is ‘mostly’ in the clear. There *may* have been a breakdown, the airline’s fault, not letting the gate know about the 4 must-ride employees prior to boarding. And United called the police on a customer, turning a customer service issue into a law enforcement issue (which the airline CEO explicitly says should not happen again in a similar situation).

    I DO think the aviation police officers have gotten too much of a pass on this.

  13. Doctors are cheap, and demanding.

    They have to be tight to make it through school, they have to be right 100% if the time,

    This guy should have had some respect for the system, United should not have called the police,

    My wife is an Asian Doctor, we will still both fly United, to PEK. In a few weeks.

  14. I, for one, agree that it is about class. There used to be 2 classes for aircraft- now at least 5 boarding groups. Economy pax used to be treated the same, now they are playing roulette when they do not give enough $$$ to airlines. Admit it or not, gone are the days where middle class was majority. The airlines are just blatant enough to reflect the change in their systems.

  15. Dear Gary:

    I saw your interview on the BBC and your callous defence of United – are you for real? You basically blamed Dr. David Dao for what happened to him in Chicago. Moreover you said “United has received more than its fair share of blame for the incident”. Now that United’s CEO has apologized for what happened do you still feel the same?

  16. @Mark Anderson — I am blaming the police response / use of force as much as United, and both more than the passenger who did not create the situation nor the response to the situation.

  17. Ah, but Gary slyly does not mention how he blamed the victim for not cooperating and then dredged up some anbcient facts just to shame the victim.
    If Gary reads through his old blogs, he will see that he has clearly sided with United, and only changed his tune at a later date.
    Gary has no gumption or morals as Gary flies in the front of the plane using elite status. Gary knows he will never be bumped.

  18. On a less trolly note, whatever happened to Uniteds service culture? Allow me to explain. In India a service job is probably the most difficult to handle, purely because most customers think they own the place because theyre customers. Theoretically, it would feel great to be able to whack the most obnoxious guests I have dealt with.However, ultimately, its about making sure that even the most obnoxious customer feels leaving satisfied.
    Airlines, &, top end hotels (to a certain degree) in the West can act like theyre doing you a big favour for every little thing. Having hospitality experience at one of Indias best hotels, I can say that service is about the small things. Its not the robotic mid meal “hows your food?”; rather, its the sending up of the room key to your floor when youve locked yourself out.
    Most importantly, its about pulling out the stops when the service provider has screwed up, ergo United not asking for volunteers at the gate. Sweeten the payout, and then move forward.
    Thus ends the bit about the incident. We shall now look at Oscars behaviour.
    As the CEO of a company, Oscar would obviously have been under pressure as he would not have had knowledge of the incident till it went online. Once it went online, he would have had to ask around, and wait for feedback, all of which takes time. It may have also happened that he was misinformed.
    However, to come out and give terse apology, which shows absolutely no remorse, or acknowledgement of your customers brutal situation, is appalling. You then see the outrage increase, and a few days later you claim that you are really sorry, yada, yada, yada. It took you two days to do that? And did it only happen because your stock price fell as fast as the Doctors head onto the seat? Even if one gives Oscar the benefit of the doubt, why couldnt you sound as sincere at the outset? Airlines are fighting a losing battle when it comes to their public perception, because they are already seen as money grubbers. To apologise once your share price nosedives comes off as greedy, and heartless.
    Now, where did we see a lot of the outrage? In the comments section of this & other blogs, which ipso facto appeared to side with United. Some bloggers, eg, Lucky & TPG apologised for their misreading the situation. I do not recall seeing an apology from Gary. A good question at this point is “why should that bug me?” Well Gary, thats because im not someone whos incredibly well off. Ive been glad to get op upgraded on two international flights, but most of my flying has been in cattle class. I dont normally fly LCCs, even though LCCs in India provide better service than legacy carriers in the US, IMO. Dr Dao could have been me. Someone who has legally boarded the plane, ergo, its not a IDB, who has made my case clear in a polite manner to the air crew, who choose to get huffy, because their colleagues have screwed up, big time.
    Why mention IDB? There a lot of commenters who have pointed out that this was not an IDB based on their interpretation of the facts, prima facie, which seem correct to me. I agree that flight crew have to be obeyed. But why should you not stand your ground (and not in the FLorida manner) when you are in the right, and the crew is only trying to screw you over?
    To know that there are those with a wide readership, who defend the indefensible and then dont apologise is incredible.
    Your peculiar situation, where you depend on the airlines for access, also makes it appear that you have some skin in the game, when Im fairly confident you dont. But to think that I could be whacked around the USA because of an air crew going on a power trip, caused by their own screw up, and then to be maligned by popular bloggers is upsetting.
    PS. If Ive not seen your apology, Im in the wrong.

  19. I heard you on Fox this afternoon. Good show. I wondered why in the world the airlines don’t just put those 340 or so people affected by those over-bookings on a private jet , ie. wheels up or some such. It would have been way less than the bad PR experienced in this debacle. I suspect the recipients of such bookings would be as happy as a clam to get a flight on a private jet.
    Jim Laubscher

  20. Again, social divide? The social divide being ultra rich, owners of big companies who never fly commercial, compared to the rest of the social classes that fly commercial? Yeah that exists. The ultra rich are never exposed to things that the other classes experience on a daily basis. This is why having someone like ferrethead as President is so wrong for America. The rich are writing all the rules for themselves and their companies and the rest of America are pawns for their games.

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