The Creeping Racket of United’s “Overbooking”

There once was a time when I could care less about what airline I took. I went to the first online booking site I could find, searched for the lowest price and packed my bags. I was not a frequent traveler by any means, at least not by airplane. I might squeeze in one trip a year when I had the money to do it. Frequently, my only yearly travel was to Bermuda, where I have close family.

And then I married my wife. She’s a travel nut. She’s been arranging international travel for herself and her family since she was around 12 years old. I’d really never met someone so versed in the intricacies of air travel as she was, or anyone who could sit down for a half an hour and find the best travel “deals.” Usually “deal” meant “cheap tickets” instead of “great experience.” In the beginning of our marriage, these flights were arranged using Continental Airlines.

You remember Continental, don’t you? Great service and meals even on short flights. Space for your carry-on, because no one was trying to avoid a checked-baggage fee. Those were the days.

For someone who had possibly traveled by airplane about five times his entire life at age forty, this sudden ramp-up in travel was jarring and anxiety-ridden. Most of my air travel had occurred prior to 9/11, so the additional security was confounding and honestly, frightening. This did nothing to engender me toward air travel. The jostle to get a seat, the crazed rush to get into the plane and shove overly-large baggage into an overly small space was bizarre and frustrating to me.

Well, just as we were getting married, United purchased Continental. Continental was struggling to stay competitive and the merger with United seemed to make sense, in a merger kind-of-way. For Continental’s customers, there was a heavy sigh of sadness as they realized that they would be forced to transfer their miles to possibly the worst airline they could imagine (maybe, just maybe, American Airlines was the definitive “worst”). They would now be nearly forced to continue to use an airline they’d actively avoided for years.

Why did people avoid United? As a premium airline (as compared to JetBlue or Southwest), United pioneered the “nickle-and-dime” approach to customer service. Once they caught wind that people accepted snacks-only flights on JetBlue, United followed suit. After the merger, United started charging for checked baggage. My wife maintained a United credit card account in large part to avoid this charge. United is now charging for the use of overhead bins. They have progressively made luggage an “extra” expense for travel, adding charges over and above their ticket prices for nearly anything you want to bring with you.

Come to think of it, I had never been asked to make a purchase on an airline prior to flying with United. The first time an air hostess approached me to buy food and snacks on a flight was supremely uncomfortable. But that was just the beginning.

I soon became prepared for the inevitable “overbooking” of our return flight home. I saw an article over the past fews days (possibly on Wired.com) where United only claimed less than a single percentage point of “overbooking.” I must be the unluckiest traveler in the world, because fully a third of our return flights home included a request to “volunteer” for a later flight. As a result, I pleaded with my wife to normally make arrangements to return home twenty four hours prior to the end of our time off to avoid arriving home the morning I needed to return to work.

Imagine, cutting your trip short to accommodate the business habits of your airline. That feels backward to me. Doesn’t it to you? And don’t misunderstand, I realize the business acumen behind overbooking. Any airline could lose loads of money averaging a few empty seats per flight. But due to no-shows? That line of reasoning makes no sense. The last time I checked, no-shows didn’t get refunds, so the airlines don’t lose money at all. This is assuming the no-show made no attempt at communication a week prior to travel. So, United still gets something from no-shows, whether its a fee for re-booking or the full price of the ticket. Or both.

And lets define “overbooking,” while we’re here. To be clear, the only definition of “overbooking” that I accept is for customer seats, period. Accommodating on-duty or off-duty employees does not count. An airline cannot call a fully booked flight “overbooked” because they want to transport off-duty employees on that full flight. Honestly, it should be illegal (from a consumer protection standpoint) for any airline to remove a paying customer to accommodate an employee that United wants to transport somewhere. This is simply a cost-saving/time-saving strategy, since United can certainly pay to transport their employees by other means without removing customers from flights. That’s a cost of business expense, not a required inconvenience to a paying customer.

United’s current policy creates an adversarial relationship between employees and customers. It’s evident on nearly every flight I take with them. Air hostesses berating customers for boarding too slowly, antagonistic announcements for overbooked flights and the like.

Most importantly, this policy puts a certain lie you’ve been told to the test. Overbooking is a business strategy used to reduce “losses” from no-shows. The problem is, by and large, United loses no money from no-shows – it’s an invalid argument. Have you ever not shown up for a flight and gotten a refund a week later? I didn’t think so. Not unless there were tragic circumstances involved. What is more likely is that you were given an additional charge for not showing up – a “re-booking fee.” So, to reiterate, no-shows – defined as ticketed customers who do not show up for their flights – actually make United more money. Now you know the real reason for overbooking.

United gets your original ticket price, plus a no-show fee and they get to fill the seat with another paying customer (or an off-duty employee, for whom they do not have to pay transportation costs). This is literally a racket, as in, the definition of “racketeering.” Yet United gets to present no-shows as a business loss to the public. A business loss that requires overbooking. Let me give you an example.

I am currently on a trip to visit Nashville. I chose to drive here and my wife made arrangements to fly here with my daughter a few months ago. The day my wife and daughter were to take their flight, she saw a weather report indicating heavy thunderstorms and tornado activity on her flight path, so she chose to drive with me, instead. A pretty typical no-show. Hers was just one valid reason out of many to not show up for a flight. And since there is no incentive to contact United, we did not contact them.

She was a no-show for a round-trip flight to/from Nashville. Not only will she never get her ticket price back, she will also not get a refund of the ticket for our five year-old. We can fairly assume that those seats were filled. So, United got a minimum of double the ticket price for my wife’s and daughter’s seats. Then they charged my wife a “re-booking fee” for her return flight, which they canceled but for which they gave my wife a credit. So, as a result of a “no-show,” United received the ticket price for two tickets that were never used and and additional fee for a ticket that was used. In addition, United probably filled the seats my wife and daughter didn’t use, with other paying customers or off-duty staff.

No-shows are not a loss. They’re a free-and-clear profit if the seats are filled. There is no justifiable need for “overbooking” based on no-shows. Even if the seats weren’t filled, they were paid for and most likely resulted in additional fee revenue.

Well, ok. There is one justification. More profits. More nickel-and-diming customers to make more profits. No wonder Continental couldn’t compete.

What you may also not understand is that United (and many other airlines) skirt federal law by convincing you to “volunteer” for a later flight if yours is overbooked. By federal law, if you lose your seat due to “overbooking” the airline is required to pay you up to four times your ticket price or roughly $1,400, which ever is the smaller amount. Airlines get around this by making it inconvenient for you to take your refund and book a separate flight (which is also likely to be overbooked). By inconveniencing you, they convince you to sign a waiver for a voucher that you may never use and which has provisos (blackout dates, voucher only good in the continental US, etc.). So, for the trouble of being removed from a pre-paid flight, United gets to offer you something of almost no value in return. By the way, if you do use the voucher, you’ll need to buy a return ticket from wherever you just went. Ooops. More profit.

At this point, it is no wonder that passengers no longer want to accommodate “volunteer” requests from airlines. The airlines, most certainly United, are making revenue at every interaction a passenger has with them. And they frequently yell at you or abuse you for that privilege. If you are not a frequent traveler, it may be fair for you to put this down to “first world problems,” and maybe that’s a fair criticism. But getting appropriate value and customer service is an expectation we should all have, no matter what that service is.

My advice? Just don’t fly United, or any other airline that does this. If these companies only listen to their pocketbooks, then speak the language they will hear. Before ever that poor man was forcibly ejected from a seat he paid for, in a blatant ploy for United to save a few bucks, this kind of abuse was one of the primary reasons I chose to take a twelve hour drive to Nashville, instead of a three hour flight.

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Welcome to Trump’s America (Be at Ease, It Was Always This Way)

I’m a liberal progressive with some conservative tendencies. If, in this new America, that offends or frightens you, you should move on. If you’re actually interested in dialog, then welcome.

To me this date – November 8th, 2016 – corresponds to the assassination of Kennedy as my mother described it to me. She even made a scrapbook that I can pull out one day, mouldering in some closet at her house.

In contrast to my mother, I did not lose a beloved President. What was assassinated today was my hope. My hope for my children and my grandchildren. In fact, I think I would actively advise my children not to have children of their own, at this point. Political contraceptive.

How bizarre, you think, “What’s this he’s going on about, then?”

You see, I’ve survived this America before. For years, children in the town where I grew up ganged up and beat me, calling me “nigger.” Does that offend you? The truth of it? How do you think it makes me feel? It felt like all of the children in my town were against me, but in truth it was only a few. Some even took me under their wings in a rather negligent way – “You’re not that kind of nigger”

And while they may not have been hard-core racists (I am here writing this, after all), they taught me all I needed to know about America. That for the most part, as a non-white man, at best I will only be tolerated by the vast majority of Americans. That no matter that I’ve served my country, educated myself and worked hard for nearly 40 years, I’m only just a nigger in America. Or a “damn Muslim.”

I’ve learned that most people will stand by as I am being abused, if they are not actively participating or egging the participants on. If they are particularly tolerant, they may just look on in fear or disgust.

Perhaps even less grace will be afforded my children. Will they have to hide their beliefs as Muslims? Will they disavow culture and upbringing in order to eke out survival as brown people in America? Or will they live a hidden, Anne Frank version of Islam – the kind that comes out from the crawlspace only when the coast is clear and candles are lit?

I watch as my liberal white friends shrug and say “Maybe next time.” Or “That was disappointing.” It’s ok, I’m used to it. Trump’s America is nothing new to me. It is only the horror I have been struggling against my entire life. I went into decades long debt to bankers to raise myself up, studied hard, did the right things. But here I stand today, solidly on square one.

Maybe I and my family will be registered as Muslims. He said that, you know. Yes, he did. And you supported him in it, because both Democrats and Republicans colluded to frighten you to death, so they could make more money and garner more individual power.

You want me to be outraged by Trey Goudy’s laughable and expensive crusade against Hillary? He’s only nearly every (white) man I ever knew for the first 15 years of my life. This is nothing new to me. I learned to laugh at the fear they tried to feed me. “Is that really the best you can do?”

The real problem is that I drank the juice. When Obama was elected president, I thought, “Well now, we’ve finally arrived.” Maybe the country really isn’t mostly racist after all. But now, you and I are faced with the plain truth. That bigoted aggression was only hiding, living and growing – festering under the skin, until Trump popped our collective boil.

And, in treating that festering boil with the worst kind of doctor, my hope has finally been lost. I don’t believe in you anymore, America. Harriet Tubman did. Frederick Douglass did. Susan B. Anthony did. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did. You may not believe it, but Malcolm X did too. How? He never left. He never gave up. He died fighting for what he believed in.

Not so much to believe in, really. Just the possibly – the hope – that there could be an America where lynchings, firebombings, extra-judicial killings, segregation and mass-shootings was not “a thing.” If you think about it, that’s really what America actually stands for – order and fairness for all its citizens, and beyond that, for all the world’s citizens. But hey, America, you can’t criticize other countries for being savage any more. You’re in the dirt with them, now.

Malcolm X is my hero. As is Gandhi. And Lincoln. All men who lost their lives fighting for basic human rights. But you know what? After three centuries of concerted effort, I’m pretty sure it’s ok to say, “Hey guys, this isn’t working.” I mean, my ancestors were slaves. But they were also the first Europeans to settle this land. I wonder which is worse?

So I can tell you, because I have been living this dichotomy for almost fifty years. There is the America we’d like to believe in. And there’s the America that actually exists.

So, what’s the point of all this navel-gazing? Well, America, you’ve forced my hand. Maybe, like Richard Wright, I could find solace in residence in another country. Or maybe I just give up.

I love watching the internets talk about how Trump will bring this country together when he has spent the last two years (and longer) tearing it apart. And he’s not completely to blame. The media never kept the candidates focused on hard questions. I still really have no idea of the specifics of either party’s platform for this election, except for the vigorous wagging of fingers. Literally the only candidates who offered solid policy solutions were hushed and pushed aside.

I can tell you that that I will not wait for my property to be seized, or my far distant family to be purified in nuclear fire, or to be encamped as the Jews and Japanese were (another Nazi Germany/America correlation).

So, all you pundits espousing “hope?” Yeah, not for me. I will not live to see my daughter imprisoned, or my son relegated to camp labor for the “good of America.” Hyperbole? No, it’s what Trump promised. He has the entire Congress and will probably have the Supreme Court as well. Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz AND Michael Pence will have actual, almost completely unopposed power in this country.

Some of you really don’t see a problem. Here’s what I see. Women who die from septicemia trying to get illegal abortions (no more Roe v. Wade or Planned Parenthood). More police brutality and overreach (Trump promised nationwide stop-and-frisk – almost exclusively enforced on people of color). More black people being killed for no reason. The literal extinction of Native Americans (Trump and his cronies have got to make more money, after all), even more tens of thousands of Muslim lives destroyed all over the world in order to stop a few thousand extremists who pose no imminent danger to the US and nearly always only kill other Muslims.

But feel satisfied, America. You did good. You got what you wanted.

And to the inevitable liberal/progressive voices out there telling me to keep my chin up and keep protesting and being active in the government? I say, “Fuck you.” I’ve been doing that my entire life to laughs and derision. This was my reward.

Refugees and Conflicts Are Our Problem

Said as I wished to say it. I hope you’ll read, and like the original post.

If the US is truly going to stand for “truth” and “right” then we should stop supporting those who don’t.

True Boots

The last week’s news cycle has included crises of breathtaking magnitude: Congress has contended with the influx of tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, while the world has watched as Israel has pounded Gaza with missiles, killing Hamas militants, but also dozens of women, children, and other bystanders. Yet the responses I’ve seen in the mass media and on social media has been overwhelmingly about the “rightness” of Israel to destroy sites that have included a mosque, a center for the disabled, and a cafe where people were watching the World Cup; also, about the “illegality” of children fleeing the extreme violence and poverty of their home countries, and how expensive it is to feed, house, and otherwise help children in crisis–and so we talk about rapid deportations, not resolution or care. Hamas isn’t relenting, so people seem to feel that the murder of innocents is somehow justified…

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Where Do We Go Now?

Trayvon-Martin-in-hoodie

Google+ has always been my favorite alternate social site. I’m not so sure any more. As I sit here considering my son and daughter, both of whom have brown skin and look “other” (non-Anglo), I begin to fear for their lives.

You see, I consider myself black. I always have. Perhaps that’s another blog post entirely, but the George Zimmerman trial (which could have easily been called, the Trayvon Williams trial), has brought “otherness” starkly into the foreground and reinforced my own and my children’s otherness. I fear their they will both have to deal with the intolerance exhibited on Google+ in a way that may even endanger their lives, as Trayvon’s was, simply for being black in the wrong part of town. Even the fact that there is a “wrong” part of town for Trayvon disturbs me. Because there most certainly will be a wrong part of town for my children.

Even though I had followed the Zimmerman trial for the few weeks it was present in the news, I had no idea what the conservative right (in effect, news agencies like Fox News) were postulating about Trayvon and the obvious results of the trial. Trayvon’s possible gay bashing (unverified, thrown out to the public speculatively by Rush Limbaugh), Trayvon’s use of controlled substances (unconfirmed – although he was suspended from school for trace amounts of marijuana in his backpack) and, most incredibly, that Trayvon was in fact stalking George Zimmerman (?!? – also unconfirmed and presented speculatively by conservative media). Who exactly was on trial? Can we excuse murder, much like we excuse rape, because it was the victim’s fault?

Only in this country, and specifically in the South, can a teenager be followed in a car because he is black, accosted harshly for walking in the street at night and walking out of the neighborhood, be subsequently pursued on foot and then seek to defend himself from his pursuer, murdered by that pursuer and finally be accused, post-mortem, that he was stalking his stalker. If the Stand Your Ground law works for Zimmerman, why wouldn’t it work for Trayvon Martin? Instead, Trayvon is painted as the wrong-doer, and admonished for his murder being his own fault. He simply tried to defend himself, and when he unfortunately gained the upper hand, Zimmerman whipped out a gun, murdered a boy who was simply walking home, and claimed that he was defending himself.  The Stand Your Ground law allowed the murderer Zimmerman t0 walk out of the courtroom, free.

Look folks, I do not mean to beat a dead horse, but Zimmerman was obviously looking for a fight. He chose to assume that Trayvon was up to no good, simply because he was wearing a hoodie and walking down the street at night. Zimmerman was part of a neighborhood watch. Operative word? Watch. If Zimmerman were doing what he was supposed to do, the police would have been allowed to check it out. Instead the police allowed a vigilante to chase someone walking through the neighborhood. I actually shudder to think what the police may have done to Trayvon, had they responded more quickly to Zimmerman’s call. Trayvon Martin’s body may not have even been recognizable afterward. And for those of you who may be asking why Trayvon did not call the police when he realized he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker,” there is your answer.

One of my favorite responses heard from the conservative right was that the media coverage is so out of proportion to the crime. That there are this many thousand of black-on-black crimes every year. Why is it that, instead of addressing the issue at hand, conservatives will immediately result to responses out of context? Sleight of hand. Oh and, by the way conservative media, black on black crime is largely due to institutional racism – closing schools, denying job opportunities, denying the right to vote. Yes, please point to black on black crime. You’re only pointing back at yourselves. If you do not have opportunities to live normally, what choices do you have?

I have increasing anxiety about my children’s future in the US. Think about it. They will be raised as muslims in this country. Strike one. They have brown skin that gets progressively browner during the summer. Strike two. They are independent and ignorant of the fine lines of race in this country. Strike three. Will they be injured, maimed, or murdered simply because of the color of their skin? What lessons will they be forced to learn in order to survive our society?

The final result of Zimmerman’s trial seems to support this idea. Not only was George Zimmerman acquitted, but Trayvon was reviled in an effort to save a vigilante’s life. And where is this really coming from? I have an idea that it comes from a basic fear of losing power. Laws like “Stand Your Ground” are meant to keep a waning white population in power, since they are unevenly enforced, barring people of color from using the same defense.

It is already a recognized fact that white people as a group are slowly shifting toward minority status. This in a country the conservative right have considered exclusively created for their benefit. And their reactionary fear prompts them to hold on to, to conserve, that last shred of their culture to the detriment to the rest of the US. But this cultural change in the US is a juggernaut – it will not stop. Conservatives cannot close our borders with walls to keep gated communities white and free from teenage walkers of questionable ethnic background. Who would do your dishes? Care for your children? Mow your perfectly manicured lawn? Cultivating as many good relationships with those other than their kind would be the smart thing for the conservative right to do, so that understanding and trust can be balanced between the current majority and everyone else.

Do I want my children to grow up in a country that nationally justifies the murder of a child simply because he was black? No, I most certainly do not. Now, like Edward Snowden, I only have a choice between evils. I can no longer take Richard Wright’s route in being an ex-patriot in France, since France has been creating laws against Muslims, as much of Europe is beginning to do. I cannot go to most Islamic states, since I would have similar fears of state corruption and other dangers for my children. If my children are not safe in the US, a country founded on the fundamental rights of all human beings, no matter their color or religion, where will my children be safe to live as a normal, equal human being? When I was young, I truly believed that things would get better – it was my only hope. It appears the US will continue its downward racial spiral.

Google+ illustrates perfectly (in the link below) what a horrible condition our country is in, when POTUS cannot address an issue of national concern without these racist and defensive comments. Most disturbing is that these comments are not “fringe” opinions. If they were then, I could laugh them off. But by the number of “pluses” they received, we can see that many people agree with institutional racism and think that addressing a serious race problem on the national level is “race-baiting.”

I don’t know what the answers are, but I would say that the conservative right should not let the injustice that was the Zimmerman “trial” be the keys to their own destruction. Live up to the ideals of the community that the United States of America is supposed to represent. And then, and only then, will all our children be safe from these kinds of travesties. You can be conservative. Just stop being racist.

I fear the future in a country that lets Zimmerman go free. Within weeks of Trayvon’s murder, yet another Florida man shot and killed a black teen at a gas station, because he didn’t like loud music. Will that man go free, too? Will he be able to “stand his ground,” even though the teen was seated in his car and had no weapons?

The shame of it is, he probably will.

A short addendum. You may recognize that I have used UK publications to support my point. This primarily has to do with my trust of UK news media (in relation to US news media), and the fact that there is less political slant on UK news articles about the US, since there is no benefit to have that slant.

Article that sparked the blog:

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/man-shoots-teen-loud-music-article-1.1209345

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1352947/Black-drug-offenders-times-likely-jailed-whites.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2247119/2043-census-prediction-US-whites-longer-majority-Hispanic-population-surges.html