We saw this coming.
The video of United's shameful treatment of passenger Dr. David Dao is horrific and striking, but it's not as if wasn't predictable. The following days have turned into a giant public relations mess both for United and CEO Oscar Munoz, featuring massive losses in stock value, congressional inquiry and a lawsuit, but United dealing with a massive PR blunder is almost a bi-weekly tradition at this point.
In short: While this all may have come to an ugly head, we knew what was festering under the surface.
Let's start just recently with the "LeggingsGate" because while United certainly has every right to enforce their dress code on United Pass tickets, there's also plenty of evidence that said enforcement is completely uneven based on the gate agent who is doing the enforcing and possibly even sexist.
Even if you personally believe we were all better off when people dressed up (not down) to fly — I'm right there with you— United rushed to respond and made things worse for themselves.
But, again, remember that this is not a new thing.
Back in 2015, a United Airlines pilot made an emergency landing due to what he perceived as a "threat." In reality, it was an autistic teenaged girl who simply needed a hot meal. As with Dr. Dao, United tried to paint the girl as a threat, but witnesses, paramedics and law enforcement all found her quiet, docile and watching a movie. United made them deplane anyway.
Then there was the time their inattention forced a disabled man to crawl off of a flight. Or, the time they left a blind passenger who was mercifully found by a maintenance crew. They've made pets suffer, too. In fact, they have the worst record on pet deaths of any U.S. airline.
Yet, people still fly United — some because they are forced due to circumstance; others because they want to.
Every expert traveler has their favorite airline. Personally, I've had extremely good experiences with both American and Delta. TravelPulse Cruise Senior Writer Jason Leppert has talked fondly about Delta many times. Others love (no, really, love) Southwest Airlines because low-cost pricing and free checked bags matter in a big way. Somehow, there are even people out there who actually prefer flying on United — at least, there were.
Go over that list again and you'll find just as many people that love the airlines you hate and hate the airlines you love. Bigger picture, it's inarguable that the airlines we know are hardly the airlines worth loving. In fact, TripAdvisor recently released a list of the airlines customers love best and, quelle surprise, JetBlue and Alaska Airlines are the only U.S. airlines in the overall Top 10.
Yeah, no United.
We have options, and we have ideas of what airlines could do better. We can either ride on those better airlines or demand that the airlines we ride rise to meet the quality we desire. Passengers have that power. We are not bound to simply take what we get, hold our nose and pretend we like it. Yes, flying is a privilege, but so is having people pay to use your product.
In America, constant deregulation and consolidation have had our airlines racing to the bottom. Instead of looking up and seeing how they can be more like Emirates (or even JetBlue), our airlines are looking down and seeing how they can copy Ryanair and other no-frills airlines. Instead of protecting consumer rights like the European Union does (in spades), our government takes millions upon millions of lobbying dollars to strip us of our rights as passengers.
We can and we should demand better, but we don't.
We complain but we don't act.
We have zero empathy when these things happen to someone else even while saying we'd never allow it to happen to us.
We even find ways to blame the passengers, digging up dirt on them as if they deserve this mistreatment while forgetting that an airline like United has plenty of dirt its own past.
We accept a system that treats airline employees as de facto law enforcement yet simultaneously races to the bottom in terms of paying, training and retaining those employees.
Moreover, we accept it every step of the way — not only from airlines but from airports and security personnel as well.
Not to be entirely cynical, but United and the other major U.S. airlines have dealt with blunders like this before, and they've dealt with Congressional inquiries and threats of regulation. I find it hard to believe that anything will truly change this time around. The cycle of shock and yawn will continue as we wait to be outraged at a later date but never really change or demand the change we're collectively pretending to seek.
Or, we decide — individually and culturally — that we're not willing to live with less anymore.