Column:: How a family almost got bumped out of first-class for United’s CEO
Far be it from me to tell United Airlines how it should run its business.
But judging from the hundreds of emails, tweets and social media posts I’ve gotten in response to my column on a first-class passenger being threatened with handcuffs — this is separate from the doctor-dragging incident — I feel comfortable in suggesting that this company needs to make some changes, and fast.
This first story I’ll share isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But it’s perhaps illustrative of the corporate mindset at United, which seems to place customer satisfaction well below the interests of employees and shareholders, which isn’t very smart over the long haul.
It also involves the head of the company, Oscar Munoz. And a United spokeswoman admitted to me Wednesday that it really happened.
Steven Ginsberg — he prefers to be called “Sonny” — is a Chicago lawyer who vacationed this past Christmas in Aspen, Colorado. He told me that when he and his family were flying home on United, the weather was pretty fierce. The small plane sat for nearly an hour on the runway before returning to the gate.
In 2016, almost 500,000 airline passengers were denied boarding of flights in the U.S, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. (Kori Rumore/Chicago Tribune)
At that point, a family of five that had occupied most of the six first-class seats got off the aircraft. Ginsberg didn’t know it at the time, but he found out later that this was Munoz, his wife and three of his four kids.
The flight crew promptly upgraded the first-class standby passengers to the suddenly available first-class seats. Eventually, the plane left the gate again for another takeoff attempt. However, it turned around and once more returned to the gate.
United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says this was solely due to the weather. Ginsberg, who was on the plane, isn’t so sure.
At the gate, he told me, a flight attendant announced to the five people who’d been bumped up to first class two hours earlier that they’d have to return to Economy Plus. “She said the family that had gotten off earlier had decided to get back on,” Ginsberg said.
This being Aspen, none of the people now enjoying first-class accommodations were willing to move. Ginsberg said he was told by one of the now-first-class passengers that a crew member had confided that Munoz and his family had disembarked to try and get seats on an American Eagle flight to Chicago.
When that didn’t work out, the passenger told Ginsberg, the United chief executive hurried back to his own carrier’s flight.
“The standby folks stood their ground. They knew it was Munoz, were bothered by them being the cause of an extra delay and did not feel they should be moved up and then back.”
McCarthy said Munoz was unaware of all this. She said that when he and his family reboarded the aircraft, he recognized the unfairness of asking people to move and, on his own, decided to take the empty seats in Economy Plus.
Ginsberg’s take is that the flight crew was “bending over backward to make the CEO happy.”
If so, it would reflect what seems to be yet another case of misplaced priorities. In the case of David Dao, the doctor who was forcibly dragged Sunday from an overbooked United flight, his seat was wanted by the airline for one of its own employees, who needed to get elsewhere for a work shift.
Then I wrote about Geoff Fearns, an Irvine investment manager who was threatened with being handcuffed if he didn’t hand over his full-fare, first-class seat on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles to another first-class passenger deemed a “higher priority” by United.
Micky Levy, for example, said she was flying from Newark (N.J.) Liberty International Airport to LAX last month.
“As soon as I sat down, I noticed my seat smelled like it was soaked with urine,” she recalled. “The floor was also moist. I complained to the flight attendants, who were very rude.”
After her seatmates also complained, Levy said, a United employee placed extra cushions atop the existing ones. The smell, however, remained intense.
Levy said a flight attendant refused to upgrade her to an empty seat in business class but instead responded that “I could go to the lavatories, get some water and soap, and wash my seat if I was really bothered by the unsanitary smell.”
Rita Nethersole related her experience last summer flying United from Hong Kong to her home in Massachusetts. She said she suffers from claustrophobia and can have panic attacks on long, crowded flights. So she specifically booked an aisle seat and confirmed that she still had the seat reservation 24 hours before her flight.
She ended up spending hours standing in the galley, heavily medicated, trying desperately to keep from freaking out.
“I did everything I was supposed to and still wound up with a seat that was unacceptable,” Nethersole said. “No one attempted to help me. No one should have had to go through this.”
On the other hand, Michael Barletta told me about his experience a year ago when United was “warm, compassionate and exceptionally empathetic” after his 26-year-old daughter, Camille, a United flight attendant, died after being hit by a speeding car.
United arranged for her body to be flown to Chicago for a memorial service.
Munoz also became personally involved, arranging transportation and hotel accommodations for Camille’s former colleagues to attend the service. He called the family to convey his condolences.
That’s classy behavior.
Now what about all the rest of us who aren’t airline employees?