On the Wing

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.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Thank you for this Yonason! What a great example of an ethical dilemma. I see both sides. If someone asked me, it would depend. If they were disabled or frail, it would be a no brainer. There is something, however, that is unfair for one to cut to the front of the line. Why that person? If there were a few more empty seats, I might do a drawing and allow the winners to have first dibs on the seats. Now that to me would feel right and just. I believe most people would be satisfied with the outcome based on randomness versus entitlement.

  2. I’m in love with this piece of wisdom dear Yonason! Unfortunately, this is what happens when we hire people who are still operating on auto-pilot from their distorted center(s) and invasive subconscious program, who have no clue about their mission in life, and that we (suffering from the same limitation) treat them as “things” instead of a whole person in a whole job.

    “Use me creatively (mind), pay me fairly (body), treat me kindly (heart) in serving the humanity in a principled way (spirit) ~ Stephen Covey.

    Most of the time, we’re busy dealing with the manifestation and forget about the underlying. That’s specifically what makes the result always partial and reversible…

    You’re brilliantly stipulating the win-win paradigm is the solution and I couldn’t agree more; Nevertheless, this win-win situation can only be reached when fixing the root causes of the dysfunctional win-lose paradigm. The very crucial element of the equation is having a servant leader at the top of the organization. If this is not yet the case, at least someone who is humble enough either to commit to the homework on their subconscious program, or to promote/hire a person who already is.

    This servant leader’s main mission is to help trigger the transformation of the whole organization from within through guiding it to reach the sweet spot: “the nexus where the ‘Personal Greatness’– Vision, Discipline, Passion and Conscience, the ‘Leadership Greatness’– Modeling (the principle-centered behavior which creates trust and healthy relationships), Pathfinding (creating a shared vision or order without demanding them), Aligning (designing and executing systems and structures that reinforce the core values and highest strategic priorities of the organization. It allows consistency without relying on the formal leader’s continuous presence), and Empoweing (putting people at the heart of the organization, seeing the potential they’re not seeing yet, wholeheartedly supporting their growth and daring greatly, and promoting the win-win paradigm backed by the right tools), and finally the Organizational Greatness– Vision, Mission, Values overlap. This is another way to referring to the power that is released when you “Find Your Voice” as an individual, team and organization” ~ A reformulation of Covey’s work.

    Again, the “whole” person paradigm is the keyword! “Open your heart. Take the whole-person approach–body, mind, heart and spirit– and see what a powerful expression “open your heart” is. Physically, keep your arteries clean through proper diet and exercise so that your heart is strong and healthy. Open your heart emotionally so that you are willing to involve people in the problem and work out solutions together, and listen deeply for understanding. Open your heart mentally so that you are constantly learning, see people as whole people, and free yourself of “quick-fix” thinking, so that leadership indeed becomes your choice. Open your heart spiritually so that your life is driven by a higher wisdom, by a divine conscience whose ethic is finding yourself through losing yourself in the service of others– doing well by doing good.” ~ (You guessed right!) Covey