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When Customer Service Dies: the Strange Case of United Airlines

April 12, 2017

We are always on the lookout for stories involving acts of discrimination against people with disabilities by people whose job it is to provide customer service. These acts are usually the result of ignorance, fear and misinformation. In March there was the ejection of a guide dog using passenger from an American Airlines flight.

While reports of this were widely circulated on social media and condemned by the disability community, expressions of disappointment and outrage against the airline in the mainstream press and public were muted. But the brutality that marked the removal of a 69-year-old passenger from a United Airlines flight in April Stirred anger from airline passengers to newspeople to investors alike, and was deeply examined by television, print and online media. Calls for the resignation of United’s CEO came thick and fast. News reporters and editors examined whether the airlines had, in both cases , acted within the law. What they found for the most part was that they did have the right to remove passengers at their discretion.

Where, then, was the failure? It seems trivial to name, but it’s really quite simple: customer service. The arrogance of one of American’s employees foreshadowed the violence of United’s response: The American attendant told the affected passenger that he was removing her “because I can.”

That sense of corporate-enabled entitlement has its roots in an industry that sees itself as more valuable than any of its customers. The message this sends is that that its customers are there to serve the airline, rather than the other way around.

People with disabilities are the typical recipients of (and accustomed to) this behavior because they are unconsciously seen by the industry as the weakest link in the crowd of already disenfranchised passengers, and thus treating them with disdain or worse is accepted as the rightful, most reasonable and least consequential course of action. While such cases do provoke expressions of outrage, those come mostly from within and speak mostly to the disability community.

The United attack on its passenger, who, though apparently non-disabled is very much a person of color and a senior, has unveiled the ugliness at the heart of airline-passenger relations, exposing the truth about the industry view of customer service: it is window dressing rather than mission critical.

There are many reasons for this upside-down perspective, from a too-cozy relationship between owners and regulators to a willful disregard of the rights of employees (who may rank even lower than passengers in management’s view).

The possible ouster of one feckless CEO will not make much of a difference. Real change will only come when airline executives – and, sadly, regulators finally recognize that without the support of their passengers, smartly piloted airplanes will fly, but dumbly managed airlines will die.

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