Here are two stories to read in the wake of the horrific behavior of both United Airlines and law enforcement agents who bloodied and dragged a passenger off of a flight in Chicago yesterday.
Before United Airlines became the kind of business that could both commit violence against a customer and then refuse to properly apologize for it, it was an simply an inept corporation on the verge of becoming one of the largest airline carriers in the country. In 2014, New Yorker writer and longtime United flyer Tim Wu outlined all the ways the company had lost his loyalty after its 2011 merger with Continental:
I suppose that everyone has his breaking point. For me, it was while trying to pre-board an overcrowded flight to Miami with a noisy baby in my arms, only to be ordered back in line by a curt agent. At that moment, I realized that United had quietly eliminated the traditional practice of pre-boarding “passengers with small children,” choosing to favor a few élite fliers over the convenience of everyone else. United spokesman Charles Hobart would describe the new boarding policy as an improvement: “We figured it would be better to simplify that process and reduce the number of boarding groups.”
The United merger is a grand example of a consumer sinkhole—a merger that proves to be not just a onetime event but an ongoing disaster for consumers (and shareholders) who suffer for years after. I wasn’t the only one who noticed the airline’s descent. Since 2011, United has piled up a mountain of consumer complaints (according to one report, only Spirit has more per passenger) and has repeatedly tallied some of the worst quality rankings in the nation, trailing even discount airlines like Frontier and AirTran. A Web site named Untied.com collected these complaints; United tried to sue it out of existence.
Wu uses the United case to argue against corporate mega-mergers: There is simply no evidence these anti-competitive deals ever lead to anything other than higher prices and degraded service for customers.
Albert Burneko at Deadspin uses the United debacle to take a more sweeping look at how we have surrendered logic and empathy in favor of the distance and simplicity of corporate rule-making. As workers, we get to be safely inhuman in our daily behavior:
Put the United personnel in a rental car or shuttle bus for the relatively short road trip from Chicago to Louisville to avoid displacing people who’d booked their tickets and been allowed to board the flight? Offer the passenger however much money would get him to leave the flight voluntarily? Find somebody else on the flight who might be willing to give up their seat if that passenger would not leave at any price? Literally any course of action that might force a corporate behemoth, and not the sucker who’d done nothing more than expect a service in exchange for his money, to eat a little bit of shit? No. Not possible. The passenger had to be removed. The error in the workflow had to be snuffed out, the algorithm restored to its familiar course, there and then, in the person of that guy, at that exact moment, before it propagated further delays and inefficiencies at the next node. …
But the point is: You are not the corporation. You are the human. It is okay for the corporation to lose a small portion of what it has in terrifying overabundance (money, time, efficiency) in order to preserve what a human has that cannot ever be replaced (dignity, humanity, conscience, life). It is okay for you to prioritize your affinity with your fellow humans over your subservience to the corporation, and to imagine and broker outcomes based on this ordering of things. It is okay for the corporation to lose. It will return to its work of churning the living world into dead sand presently.
Which brings us to the Louisville Courier-Journal, which has now published an abhorrent article documenting past criminal allegations against the passenger. Not only is this another example of the “no angel” genre of news reporting—in which a victim’s past is resurfaced to justify the violence they suffered—but it’s also a perfect example of a news organization acting in the company’s interest. The editors will no doubt justify this coverage by saying the passenger was “newsworthy,” instead of thinking like actual living, feeling humans.