June 23, 2017

Travel Thursday: How Social Media Affects Perceptions

Ah, Thursdays. The day I try to come home, but am often thwarted. Last night, I ended up stuck in Dallas overnight, so you’re getting my travel Thursday thoughts on a Friday this time šŸ˜‰

It’s always interesting to see people’s reaction when I tell them I work in the airline industry – it’s not really an industry that has many fans these days! And a few months ago, when David Dao was kicked off United Express 3411, people were especially opinionated in their belief that the airlines are evil and out to screw us over any way they can. But believe it or not, last month J.D. Power released its 2017 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, and found that overall satisfaction has actually increased by 30 points in the last year – from 726 to 756 on a 1,000 point scale. How is that possible?

In my opinion, it’s due to our social media culture, and the enigmatic ways that certain events go viral – even when the people clicking/watching/sharing have no idea what’s actually happening behind the scenes. When everyone was outraged over United Express 3411, I was a little surprised. The violence was certainly unusual and unacceptable, but so many people were so upset about the practice of overbooking. I didn’t understand the hubbub – overbooking is nothing new (and it also had nothing to do with this particular circumstance). Furthermore, all the outrage was directed at United, even though United did nothing wrong. The guy who dragged poor David Dao off the plane was from the Chicago Aviation Authority, and the flight itself wasn’t even mainline United – it was United Express!

It’s not that there aren’t things United does wrong. In fact, just this week, there was an egregious error out in New York. United 830 was heading to Buffalo from Chicago, and was delayed an hour – pushing the arrival time to 1am. Meanwhile, Buffalo Airport had an early closing that particular night due to routine maintenance, which had been properly communicated to United Airlines. Unfortunately, it seems that United didn’t communicate that closing internally. After circling Buffalo Airport for 20 minutes (with the pilot no doubt wondering why ATC wasn’t answering), the flight diverted about 80 miles away to Rochester. When the plane finally landed in Rochester around 3am, it was difficult to find ground transportation for everyone back to Buffalo, so some passengers didn’t end up getting home until 6am! That, to me, is a much more outrageous incident, since it was a clear failing on United’s part. And yet… this is literally the only article Google can find on the topic. Why isn’t there more coverage of this incident, or another round of #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos tweets? Well, there was no passenger onboard filming the late arrival or tweeting it out to the world. Whether that is fortunate or unfortunate, I’m not sure.

This sarcastic tweet, in my opinion, perfectly summarizes a major problem in today’s society: how social media is shaping the general public to be both uninformedĀ and an angry pitchfork-wielding mob.

Back before United was in trouble for “overbooking” (even though they didn’t overbook that United Express flight), they were getting crucified for their dress code that banned leggings. Turns out, the passenger who sent the tweet that rallied the mob was completely missing the facts. The girls who had been told their outfits were inappropriate were traveling on employee buddy passes, which have a specific set of rules and regulations.Ā Angelina Newssom did a great writeup on the legging incident over at the Washington Examiner… but that didn’t stop a whole lot of backlash at United for a passenger policy they, in fact, did not have.Ā This just makes me think of how when I worked at JetBlue, anyone traveling on a pass was asked to stay onboard and help clean the plane for its next departure. Good thing no one saw me doing that and tweeted about JetBlue’s “policy” of forcing passengers to clean!

Now, I can’t hold myself up as some paragon of truth and research. I read a lot of things online without taking the time to verify the facts, and some of the sources I read are themselves under attack. But I try to take everything I read with a grain of salt, and understand that if something is truly outrageous, I ought to reexamine the facts and make sure I’m not misunderstanding the situation. (Or at the very least, not loudly shout my opinion from the rooftops until I’ve done so.)

With regard to the airline industry, I think it is just amazing that we can jet all over the world at unprecedentedly cheap prices – why aren’t we lauding the industry for that feat? Flying somewhere used to be a special treat, and while the experience has indeed become more commoditized, that’s more in response to our own preferences for cheap flights over all else. Personally, I’m willing to put up with some less-comfortable in-flight conditions in exchange for getting to explore foreign lands, and general consumer preferences indicate that many others agree.

While there are certainly some bad experiences in the air (hey, I wasn’t thrilled to have an extra overnight in Dallas last night), there is a lot of benefit that, to me, outweighs those negatives. Could the airlines prevent passengers being kicked off planes by not overbooking? Sure, and in response to the social media mob outrage around the United Express 3411 incident, a lot of airlines have done just that. But I think passengers will be ultimately unhappier when flight prices rise as a result.

The American airline industry is at an all-time satisfaction high… so let’s not let the few poor experiences taint the overall joy of flying through the air to amazing places.


2 thoughts on “Travel Thursday: How Social Media Affects Perceptions”

  1. WestJet also has a policy where any owners (employees) flying on a flight are required to help clean the plane after. I think because WestJet clearly communicates with its customers, many people are aware of this and it’s so great to see employees helping out.

    All that to say, I agree with you. Thanks to social media, headlines spread like wildfire even if they’re completely false or misleading (ie. the dress code incident).

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