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A Wing and a Prayer

This whole United Airlines bru-ha-ha (not at all ha ha) feels a bit like the presidential election. For me, there was an initial shock after both. And then I realized that it was a calling for us to be better, to do our part and make our difference. As citizens, or consumers, we have become complacent. We’ve fallen asleep at the wheel. We don’t bother to read the teeny tiny print and just assume our rights, because that feels better. We believe things will always stay the way they've always been without doing our part to contribute. It is our job as citizens and consumers to participate and to educate ourselves on our rights and responsibilities. Let the buyer beware.

The video of a man being dragged off of a United Airlines flight and the ensuing media madness has prompted me to search for a silver lining. What could they have done better? What should they have done differently? And then I asked myself, the same questions. What can I do differently to be more prepared? What should I do to participate more fully? I have decided that I will be more attentive to the fine print, to the check box that says “I agree”, and that I will ask questions so I fully understand my rights as a consumer. I am now clearer than I want to be on what are NOT my rights when travelling as an airline passenger.

Did you know that an airline has the right to kick you off of a plane for offensive body odor? They can legally remove you if you are too heavy to fit easily in your seat. And if the plane is overbooked for ANY reason they can bump you, no questions asked. Do not be under the illusion that once your seat belt is buckled, it’s up, up and away.

Some airlines choose to use an algorithm, as did United, and the computer randomly selects passengers to be selected for removal when they are overbooked. Others use the LOFO system... last on first off. This is often how companies structure layoffs when the last employee hired is the first employee fired. And some airlines select the passengers who fly least frequently to be removed first. This is their way of rewarding their loyal customers. All of these actions are within their rights. The only requirement is that they have to compensate you in some way up to $1350.

So what exactly are we buying when we pay for a plane ticket... a wing and a prayer? Well yes. You are paying for your seat in theory only. So conduct yourself accordingly. If a flight attendant asks you to leave your seat, know that step 2 might be the goon squad they send on from airport security. While I am certain there are reasonable airport security officers, they certainly were not starring in this latest film clip. And don't kid yourself... it could be you, or your daughter, your son, your husband or your wife. As human beings, we are comfortable thinking it will always happen to someone else but this isn’t sound thinking.

This revelation comes as the ink is just starting to dry on my recent purchase of plane tickets to NYC and San Fran for summer excursions. I now head into travel with a very different perspective. I will have a conversation with travelling companions about how to approach a potential random removal and a consensus that if asked to go, we go quietly. This goes against everything in me that feels fair and just but nobody from the airline industry has requested my valuable input.

And for the record, I’m not flying United. As a consumer, I have the right to vote. By choosing another airline, I send a clear message that I don’t want to play the game by their rules. I realize these are industry wide rules but I don’t like the way United enforces them. There was a better way and nobody took 2 seconds to think of it. I am telling them I don’t trust them. Every time you make a purchase and hand over your hard earned cash, you are voting YES. You get to choose. Know your rights and become a more educated consumer. I am voting NO to United. Call it a boycott or whatever you want. I am standing up and making my voice heard. How will you vote next time?

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