United Airlines passenger removed: Airlines have become their own worst enemies

Man dragged off overbooked United flight

Passengers watch in disbelief as a man is forcibly pulled from his seat by security when he does not volunteer to give up his place on an overbooked United Airlines flight.

I now hereby declare any last flickering vestige of the glamorous jet-set era to have been officially snuffed out with this week's violent ejection of the United Airlines Flight 3411 passenger.

Anyone who has suffered the indignity of modern air travel – and that means hundreds of millions of us right around the globe – in the form of stressful though necessary multiple security checks, sardine-like conditions in economy class and crackers with dips purporting to be an in-flight meal, has a view on airlines.

And with more and more of the world's citizens having the ability to afford air travel, along with the potency of social media, we're willing to express it, even with fisticuffs it seems.

United we stand, as it were. Indeed, each week Fairfax Media's Traveller section could fill its entire reader letters page with brickbats – as well as bouquets – on airlines.

While it's not exactly the most appropriate time to spare a thought for airlines it is worth considering thus: if owning a yacht is said to be like standing in a shower and continually ripping up US dollar bills then running an airline is akin to performing the same act while suffering first degree burns from the scalding torrent.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the competitive and unloved US aviation market where airlines, United included, over the years have gone in and out of Chapter 11 bankruptcies (or, like the famed Pan Am, just stopped flying) with a greater frequency than even a Donald Trump holding.

In its pursuit of profits, or at least just staying solvent, airlines have gone to extraordinary lengths to generate revenue, antagonising and frustrating their customers – inevitably the passengers down the back of the bus - in the process.

If the banks are still bastards we nowadays tend to view the airlines in a similar light, what with them charging additional fees for everything from the privilege of an exit row seat to paying for a bag of crisps (or even one of those pathetic crackers).

Only a few days ago I was hit with a $400 "refund fee" on a $2300-plus return fare to Europe that I had been forced to cancel nearly two months before departure (yes, travel editors do pay for flights from time to time).

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In many respects many airlines, in their often heroic efforts to survive what is an fearfully costly and challenging business, have become their own worst enemies, particularly US carriers.

The pernicious practice of bumping of passengers has been a regrettable decades-long tradition among US airlines and something that thankfully is not as commonplace in other markets such as Australia.

This week's incident was distinguished by a simple fact – the passenger being bumped fought back, literally. One US commentator likened United Airlines' rough tactics to a hotel guest being ejected from his or her bed and turfed out onto the street with their luggage in their pyjamas.

Certainly, the events on Flight 3411 represents a timely warning for airlines, and for that matter airports, to try and revive some of that old jet-set era glamour, enjoyment and, yes, goodwill, and not just for business and first-class passengers. If not they might as well take a shower with a bundle of torn greenbacks.

Anthony Dennis is Fairfax Media's national travel editor.

See also: How airlines decide who gets bumped from a flight

See also: Six ways flying is worse now than it was 20 years ago

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