By Jennifer Huang
The infamous United slogan touts that its passengers will “fly the friendly skies,” its informative video flaunts its diversity and acceptance for international cultures, and yet its actions illustrate that neither claim is true.
Using money to fuel its well-glossed corporate engine and profit to steer its way through the unfriendly clouds of public opinion, United is just one part of a trend of shameless corporate greed and corporate refusal to take ownership of misdeeds.
On April 9th, 2017, Asian American Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a United plane by Chicago police force, suffering a concussion, broken nose, and two lost teeth, and illustrating a growing revival of corporate exploitation in the U.S.
The incident began when United, having realized they needed to transport four extra crew members, offered to pay passengers to give up their seats on an overbooked flight. When no one volunteered, the airline selected people at random, ultimately choosing Dao. The doctor claimed he had patients to see the next morning and repeatedly refused to leave the plane; as a result, local police were called to enforce his removal. Several passengers recorded the ensuing struggle, sharing videos of the doctor being physically assaulted and screaming “just kill me” as he is dragged down the aisle by officers.
The Dao case, from the initial choice to remove the passengers to the company’s excessive reaction, screams “profit hungry” and “greedy corporation”. United’s decision to make room for the crew indicates its disregard for its passengers’ satisfaction and comfort, a blatant injustice against those who already paid for their tickets, in favor of maximizing profits on their next flight. Similarly, the company’s decision to “cap” its payment for volunteers and remove customers by forced selection instead must have been motivated by the thought that the company would operate at a loss if it raised the price to “volunteer” even higher.
The most glaring case of the airline’s avarice is showcased by CEO Oscar Munoz’s refusal to admit any wrongdoing until the company’s stocks plummeted by approximately $800 million the next day. Rather than apologizing for customer mutilation, Munoz’s initial reaction was to demonize Dao by digging up his old criminal records.
What’s even more frightening is that United’s behavior is not an outlier. Companies frequently engage and actively battle customers in the “public relations fight.” The famous McDonald’s lawsuit, in which an old lady sued the billion-dollar company after receiving third-degree burns from hot coffee and a massive healthcare bill, has been twisted and filtered through a corporate lens to portray the victim as the whiny, avaricious demon and the company as the moral defendant; large corporations, who can’t afford to lose business and public glory, bury the real stories to raise their profits.
There is, however, one piece of particularly uplifting news for the exploited or morally concerned customers out there: Public relations is a consumer-directed battle, and while no one listens to a single angry customer, an army of outraged customers can make all the difference. As shown by the Dr. Dao scenario, a dissatisfied public can wield strength in numbers, and even force a profit-mongering CEO to apologize.
Of course, companies will always be profit-driven – it’s embedded into their very nature and ingrained into our capitalist culture – and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to earn a few extra dollars (or millions of dollars), as long as it remains civil and beneficial. United crossed the line when it condoned violence against a paying customer.
In any case, the friendly skies look friendlier without United’s blatant misdemeanor. But how friendly can the skies truly be when their only visitors are ruthless companies and bloodied customers?