On 7 September 2019, a United Airline passenger asked to move from his crowded row to an unoccupied row further up. He was not requesting a first-class seat, but merely to take an identical economy seat a few rows forward.
He was told no. Those seats, he was informed, were for Economy Plus customers who paid a premium so they could board early and have access to seats closer to the cabin door. To let a regular economy passenger take one of those seats would not be fair to the customers who had paid for them. The customer messaged the airline, arguing that the seats were empty, and all the passengers had boarded. No one would lose anything by allowing him to move; indeed, other passengers – both him and his crowded neighbors – could have a more pleasant flight.
The airline responded with this message:
The customers who choose to pay for Economy Plus are then afforded that extra space. If you were to purchase a Toyota, you would not be able to drive off with a Lexus, because it was empty.
Who is right – the passenger or the airline?
In all likelihood, the same passenger would never have asked permission to move from economy class to an empty seat in first class. Why not? Because that would clearly be unfair not only to the passengers who paid for more comfortable seats and more amenities in first-class but also to other economy passengers who have just as much right to an upgrade. Indeed, the airline could replace larger first-class seats with a larger number of smaller economy seats, but chooses to provide an option for flyers who can afford more luxury.
But what are Economy Plus passengers really paying for? Their seats and the service they receive are exactly the same as in regular economy class. Instead, they pay a small premium for the convenience of earlier boarding and the security of knowing they will not have to struggle to find a seat to their liking, as well as being able to deplane more quickly.
Once the doors close, however, allowing customers in crowded seats to enjoy a more comfortable flight has no effect on either the premium customers, who got what they paid for, or on the airline, which incurs no further cost regardless of where passengers sit. What’s more, when a passenger in a crowded row moves forward, the passengers who shared his row also benefit from having more room themselves.
The airline’s comparison to a Toyota and a Lexus is mere deflection and, frankly, insulting. All cars on a lot are empty until sold; unlike a car, the same seat is sold again and again on each flight.
The underlying principle here is this: where it costs one party nothing to benefit another, that should be seen as a win-win. There is also the once-universal principle that the customer is always right, as well as the sociological truism that good behavior by one party promotes better behavior from others.
In this case, the opposite occurred. In the end, the flight attendant did allow the passenger to move up. But this was not customer service; it merely made the flight attendant’s job easier by appeasing a cantankerous passenger. It also reinforced among the other passengers the perception that the way to get what you want is to make a fuss, which is a mindset that makes everyone’s world less pleasant.
How much better if we recognize opportunities to benefit others at no or little cost to ourselves. By doing so, we encourage others to demonstrate the same kind of thoughtfulness, thereby making everyone’s world a bit warmer.
—How would you have handled this situation if you were the passenger?
—What if you were the flight attendant?
—What if you were the customer service agent responding to an angry email?
Excerpted from Yonason Goldson’s forthcoming book, Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity, due out this October from Business Expert Press. Grappling with the Gray offers a collection of case studies, real and hypothetical, intended to ignite thoughtful consideration of ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives. It provides a guided discussion of how to work inward from both extremes toward a rational and equitable middle.