After United Airlines airline lost $255 million in stock market value overnight, the carrier’s CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for physically forcing a paying, ticketed passenger off a flight, leaving him beaten and bloodied – and then lying about what happened. He called the incident “truly horrific.”
As it turns out, that incident is only the tip of a very ugly iceberg when it comes to United, in particular, and most of the other three carriers that are part of a highly profitable oligopoly which today control 85 percent of all American commercial air traffic. United alone had $3.8 billion in profits last year.
The airline has gotten away with putting profit over passengers thanks to millions spent lobbying on the federal, state and local level, directly to politicians and through political action committees. It has been very effective, even scoring a victory quickly with President Donald Trump.
The Obama administration had proposed new fee transparency rules, which would require United to explain in advance all the charges the flyer would face including the ticket and baggage fees. They were about to go into effect. The industry lobbying group, Airlines For America, was working to scuttle the new rules.
Shortly after Trump took office, Munoz attended a meeting at the White House with Trump. While there, Munoz lobbied for a delay of the Obama transparency rule. At the meeting, Trump promised to rollback “burdensome regulations.” Three days later Trump agreed to delay implementing Obama’s airline transparency rule, probably forever.
So, it is not a surprise that the airline’s arrogance flys as high as its planes. Consider the incident in which a California doctor was dragged off his flight.
It was what the airline referred to in corporate-speak as a “re-accommodation of a passenger.” The initial report blamed it on an overbooking situation. Actually, the airline just wanted four employees on board who needed to get to their next assignment. In fact, the flight wasn’t even over-booked.
“Unrestrained power has led to record profits, a dramatically degraded traveling experience, and an arrogance that verges on contempt for the average passenger,” David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is quoted in a shocking new study by Business Times and MapLight, a non-profit that reports on money in politics.
“When citizens turn to the government for help,” adds Morris, “they increasingly find Washington as corporate-oriented and corporate-controlled as the airline industry itself.”
That is because United, like other airlines, has used a significant share of its revenues to lobby not only Congress but also state and local governments, to stop passage of rules that would force them to be more transparent, treat passengers fairly, not charge excessive fees and much more.
Chicago-based United, the study found, has spent $41 million on lobbying the federal government over the past decade. It has spent $7.26 million in the last two years alone, with remarkable success. They donate to Republicans and Democrats and have spent millions more to defeat state measures in New York, California and elsewhere.
United has contributed millions to federal lawmakers and political committees by itself and as part of an industry lobbying group. It has fought legislation that would have created minimum airline seat sizes, required airlines to allow family members to sit together on a flight, and prohibit charging passengers for using the airplane bathroom.
United spent millions on lobbying against anti-trust rules leading up to its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines, which was approved despite complaints by consumer advocates.
United has not been a model corporate citizen. Last year, United was fined $750,000 for excessive delays at airports in Chicago and Houston, and another $2 million for violations of rules which require them to assist passengers with disabilities. The FAA also fined them $1.1 million for 13 incidents where planes were delayed on the airport tarmac for more than three hours at Chicago’s busy Ohare Airport.
Many other proposed rules and laws never made it out of a Congressional committee. Those include airport security improvements, better employee training to identify victims of human trafficking, higher fines for deceptive advertising, refunds if bags don’t arrive within two hours of a flight.
They also defeated a bill that prohibited “unreasonable fees” in an era passengers get charged for using wireless, headphones, early boarding, premium seats, food and drink and more.
There are more stories about passengers forced off planes despite having paid for expensive tickets, some in first class, and of other abuses. As United has gotten larger, the abuses seem to have gotten greater.
It is nice that the United CEO, shocked by the stock market kick in the company’s butt, is sorry about beating up that California doctor for refusing to act like a sheep in their pen.
However, the real story is that the dragging of that passenger off a plane is only a small part of a horrible situation in which this big corporation is able to do what it wants and charge exorbitant fees.
It is no longer about flying the friendly skies. Now it is buyer beware, and when there are four airlines who control almost all air travel, even that doesn’t work.
It is made worse by politicians like Trump, who happily accept their political contributions and then look the other way as United and the other three monopolists fly roughshod over consumers.