POLITICS

Fear Of Flying: Air India And United Airlines Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Flying has turned us into docile sheep following orders.

12/04/2017 4:25 PM IST | Updated 12/04/2017 4:49 PM IST
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Demonstrators protest outside the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport on April 11, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

It could be a match made in heaven. Literally. Indian social media is salivating at the prospect of watching Shiv Sena's 25-chappal-MP Ravindra Gaikwad flying the friendly skies with United Airlines.

That could be an encounter that would be worth watching putting WWE wrestling to shame for sheer drama. Dragging a passenger off by force from an overbooked flight has left both the passenger and United with a bloody nose. United Airlines whose CEO Oscar Munoz had a tone deaf response apologizing for "having to re-accommodate these customers" has watched his company lose $800 million in value in what quickly ballooned into a PR disaster.

United Express which was operating the flight said it chose the passengers at random but it has acquired a racial overtone as well since the passenger was Asian and the video has gone viral in China becoming the number 1 trending topic on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.

In a weird way it's the mirror image of the story that had India agog for a few weeks – the showdown between Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad and Air India. In this case the shoe is on the other foot but both are stories of thuggery in the skies.

In a weird way it's the mirror image of the story that had India agog for a few weeks – the showdown between Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad and Air India. In this case the shoe is on the other foot but both are stories of thuggery in the skies, a bit of powerplay running amuck.

And while we are excited to see poor browbeaten Air India (and other airlines) take a stand against a boorish VIP throwing his weight around and being unapologetic about it, let's not forget Indians airlines are not known for their sensitivity either. In 2012 Spicejet booted Jeeja Ghosh off the aircraft because the pilot did not feel safe flying with her. Her problem? She suffers from cerebral palsy.

Ghosh is a regular flier, travels to conferences on her own. But because airlines are trained to treat anything even slightly out of the ordinary as anathema, she was kicked off the flight despite her protests. Spicejet was not the only offender. Other airlines had prevented blind persons from boarding flights as well. But it proved costly for Spicejet. Ghosh, not one to take discrimination lying down, took her complaints to court. Four years later Spicejet was fined Rs 10 lakh when the court found the airlines had acted in a "callous manner".

Callous has pretty much become the best descriptor for airlines these days. The United story was just a more extreme example of it. But what all these stories highlight is how much of our own rights we willingly surrender when we board an aircraft. It's a convenience but it comes with a fee that most of us do not realize and one that has steadily been growing.

First they came for leg space. Then they came for checked baggage. Then they came for seat selection. Then they came for meals on board. Now there are stories that some airlines (yes, United we are looking at you) will charge for using the overhead bin for the carry-on luggage if they've bought a cheap "Basic Economy" ticket.

The indignities do not have to be big. I boarded an Air Asia flight in October that was cancelled. The replacement flight, 24 hours later, had none of our pre-booked meals. Six months later I was still wrestling with the airlines for even that tawdry bit of compensation for the meals not served. Apologies came via tweets with promises of rectification that proved to be empty. Apologies are cheap but airlines are cheaper.

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The United Airlines terminal on display at O'hare International Airport on Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Chicago, IL.

What's shocked so many about the United story is not just the man being dragged off but that United can overbook a flight and then randomly force a paying passenger off the plane from his seat, that it even has the right to do so. In America, airlines are enjoying record profits since 2010 reports The Atlantic.

When fuel prices fell those saving went into stock buybacks. They were not passed on to customers. Instead more penny-pinching was proposed like the overhead bin stinginess. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic "although this incident was unusual in many respects, it was also representative of an airline industry that has considerable power over consumers—even if the use of force is more subtle than a group of security professionals wrestling a passenger to the floor."

According to its contract, United can, in fact, deny a passenger boarding "involuntarily" if there are not enough volunteers who choose to take a later flight in case of overbooking. And the security officers who did the dirty deed can claim, as indeed United officials have suggested, the man became belligerent.

(If I was being dragged out of a seat I had paid for, I might sound belligerent too.)

But here's the rub—since security is paramount, the airline has a lot of leeway in who it chooses to bump off the plane and how it does it. Interestingly it was the same aircraft security argument that was used in the Ravindra Gaikwad case by the aviation minister to defend Air India. The civil aviation minister had said that security comes first as far as airline travel is concerned.

No one can argue with that. That's why we consent to invasive searches if needed. That's why we have stopped traveling with liquids. That's why we take off our shoes when asked.

Two men challenged that status quo in recent times. Both claim they stood up for their rights against a bullying airline. It's a matter of perspective that in our eyes the umbrage one took is feels justified while the other feels like arrogance personified.

Two men challenged that status quo in recent times. Both claim they stood up for their rights against a bullying airline. It's a matter of perspective that in our eyes the umbrage one took is feels justified while the other feels like arrogance personified. (And no, digging up sordid details about the Asian passenger, David Dao's scandals is character assassination plain and simple and has no bearing on the way he was treated.)

But it's also worth noting that most of the co-passengers could do little more than film the events on their phones. Some protested Dao's treatment but no one offered their own seats nor did anyone feel they had the right to intervene more strongly in something so ugly. Flying has turned us into docile sheep following orders, even if they seem inane, in the name of security.

Or to paraphrase Dante at the gates of Hell, "surrender all rights, ye who enter here (and that includes your right to the seat that you paid for)."

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