Note to United Airlines

If you’re going to provide lousy service, then don’t start the flight with a boastful video.

IF you’re going to run a 15-hour flight on a plane with no laptop power and big, bright TV screens that show first a hyper-violent movie that is more or less an infomercial for Extreme Fighting and then a series of sitcoms, with the constant flickering making it impossible to sleep;


IF you plan to serve for dinner a tiny portion of tasteless Mystery Meat with Anonymous Sauce and over-boiled vegetables, and for breakfast the same Mystery Meat as tasteless sausage and “French toast” made virtually without eggs, accompanied by flavorless corn syrup;

THEN you should omit the commercial before the safety announcement in which your smug, self-satisfied, oily CEO brags about an upgraded fleet and world-class chefs, complete with video of fancy-looking sushi plates. Maybe you have no alternative to running a poor-quality airline, but there’s no good purpose in lying about it to a captive audience whose members can see the truth all around them.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

39 thoughts on “Note to United Airlines”

  1. Disclaimer: I fly very rarely.

    I’ve never understood why airlines attempt to serve meals–it’s a farce.

    1. Didn’t used to be; They’ve been downgrading them for years, at one time the food they served was quite good.

      OTOH, good food/virtually unaffordable tickets, vs lousy food/affordable tickets? I’ll brown bag it.

      1. Back in the day, airport food was decent restaurants, drastically overpriced. Then some airport manager went shopping at the mall, and came back to work with a brilliant idea: “We need a FOOD COURT!”

        Now you can get a Quarter Pounder with fries to take on your flight. Or a bagel with cream cheese and cup of fresh cut fruit. Or a club sandwich with a small side salad. You can enjoy an acceptable repast en route, whilst also making back part of the price of your ticket by charging a markup on those extra 30 Big Macs and Quarter Pounders you brought aboard.

    2. I think they’ll eventually drop in-flight meals without pre-payment for reserved seating, and in-flight meals without in-flight payment for non-reserved seating flights. Passengers have consistently shown that “cheap tickets” is the paramount factor.

      1. Well, yeah: For most people, even the “cheap” tickets are expensive enough that driving is regarded as a viable alternative if it’s available. I don’t seriously consider flying unless it’s more than a 12 hour drive, or I’m trying to make it to the hospital before a loved one dies. The extra day of travel is more affordable.

        1. What he said; me too.

          Take the vector product of the disdain/discomfort/inconvenience with which the passengers are treated by the airlines, multiplied by the disdain/discomfort/inconvenience with which the passengers are treated by the airports, multiplied by the disdain/discomfort/inconvenience with which the passengers are treated by the FAA/TSA. The resultant determinant is so negative on every dimension you might as well just call it a scalar negative infinity. And that’s not even counting the concern with drunk pilots and exploding batteries!

          If God had meant for man to fly, He would have invented something other than modern commercial aviation.

      1. I took him to be asking that they not lie about the food, with the plate right in front of him.

  2. Of all the legacy carriers, United is my least favorite. It’s poorly run from stem to stern, and the customer service culture for anyone not at Platinum status or higher is suspect at best and terrible at worst.

    1. Me too. I had to fly them once last year. I’ll do anything not to fly them again for several years.

  3. I remember a United ad from many years ago in which they bragged about the food and showed one of their chefs at the stove as a gout of flame came out of the pan. I think we were supposed to think he was making some exotic dish but what I thought was “I am not going to fly on an airline that is happy about flamethrowing chefs working away near the fuel tanks”.

  4. Were you in coach? The first-class passengers might have a slightly better meal deal, although I doubt they’re getting sushi. In any case, I’d probably skip the meal and just eat snacks (both ones I’ve brought aboard, and ones I bought on the plane).

    1. You’d buy snacks on the plane? The options I’ve seen for sale are unappetizing, paltry, and ludicrously expensive.

    2. United first class passengers do get sushi on flights to and from Japan.

      I wouldn’t say it’s very good sushi, but for airline food, it’s palatable.

  5. I wrote a letter to the United CEO saying pretty much what you said above and got 2 $200 vouchers.

    1. On a Virgin Atlantic (business class) I took 15 minutes of malarkey over my passport, driver license and government id from staff then saw blatant racism to an African UN physician. Plus never received air miles despite writing them about all this and getting, weeks later, a template response. Perhaps a merger with United?

  6. Screens that won’t turn off are one of my great peeves about airlines. It’s amazing. They seem to think that no one could possibly not want the constant visual stimulation.

    I remember a flight where I had to ask the attendant, “How the hell do I turn this thing off?” He showed me how, using the remote control, but the control fit into the seat arm, and every time I nudged it the screen came back on. The attendant then explained that it wouldn’t turn on if I was just careful not to bump the remote. Try not bumping the seat arm sometime, even on a flight a lot shorter than fifteen hours. Why there’s not a simple on/off switch on the screen I don’t understand.

    Indeed, generalizing just a bit, the assumption of entirely too many restaurants, airlines, and who know what else, seems to be that the customers want this constant stimulation – visual, aural – maybe olfactory will be next. Well, I don’t. It makes me crazy.

    1. Of course the customers want the constant stimulation. The mistake would be to think that the passengers are the customers; it’s the advertisers that are the customers.

    2. It’s astounding, byomtov, isn’t it. I was on a seven-hour redeye once and could not even get a decent catnap on the four-hour second leg of the flight, because of the brilliant flickering of the bright screen two feet from my eyelids.

      Turning the horrible movie off was evidently not an option anyone designing the flight had ever considered; everyone on the flight watched the same movie at 3:00 a.m. regardless of will. The flight attendant acted like I was from another planet when I expressed a wish that it be turned off in front if my seat, which it could not be.

      Everyone loves to watch movies at three a.m. when flying three time zones backwards? Who knew it was such an established fact.

      But more importantly, Who in gods name decreed all this constant patter and flicker?

    3. This is why I always have a sleep mask with me when I am flying overnight (same for the girls, if they’re coming along; my husband, to my constant envy, can apparently sleep anywhere and under any circumstances).

      Sleep masks aren’t perfect when it comes to shutting out light, but they generally make sleeping at least possible for me.

      That said, given the option, I still minimize my flight times and take a train here in Europe, whenever this is a reasonable choice; a train ride is generally far more comfortable than a flight and reduces my overall stress level, even if it lasts a bit longer (as long as it does not take too long).

  7. Brett is right. Welcome to the 21st-century class system: the ad was meant for the only audience the airline really cares about, namely the class of people who fly not-coach.

    In the meantime: I’m afraid the contemporary amenities for international fights include, in addition to earplugs (your suggestion from way back), eye masks, meals bought before the flight, and–though I know this isn’t a suggestion you’ll take–a once-a year, horse-strength, sleeping pill.

    1. You broke two rules I have developed along with the soi disant deregulation (more like encouragement of oligopoly).

      On an overseas flight avoid flying on a US based airline. Instead choose an overseas legacy carrier which is a frequent flyer partner of whatever US airline you have accumulated miles on. And, use the easily acquired frequent flyer miles on American, United, Delta to get into business or first class.

      A few credit card applications will take you from paying to fly in coach to flying up front for pretty much free.

      The airlines appear to have figured out that make coach worse and worse will help fill the front cabins.

      We’ve gone from a system where everyone got fairly decent service (and food) at a regulated price to one where a lot of energy has to go into avoiding the horrors of coach.

      1. = = = On an overseas flight avoid flying on a US based airline. Instead choose an overseas legacy carrier = = =

        That’s a great strategy, until the last one goes bankrupt. Essentially all of the historical “flag carriers” are losing money and have been for decades, with the exception of Lufthansa (and possibly AF/KLM, but no one can untangle their finances). There’s a reason services have declined on airlines: it is a business in which it is almost impossible to make money, the Internet has made that worse, and the US carriers are actually experience some level of competition which exposes that brutal reality.


      2. The miles are indeed easy to get, but using them is another matter. They have to have upgrades available, which is, from the passenger’s point of view, a random and unlikley event, and then you have to buy an upgradeable fare – that is, pay somewhere around 2 1/2 times coach fare in order to get the upgrade. At least that’s been my experience. I’ve gone for it a few times, because long flights in coach ruin me for a couple of days, but it’s not cheap.

        1. byomtov has it. If you fly a lot an alternative is to jam it all on one airline. If you break 100,000 miles a year on American Airlines for example, you get 8 international upgrades and they virtually always are available and have no surcharge.

    2. I’ve heard good things about melatonin. It’s not a very strong sleepy pill, but apparently does wonders for resetting circadian rhythms. It’s unregulated in the US, but prescription overseas.

        1. Never heard this, some quick googling didn’t turn up anything re: micro-strokes. Source or pointers?

  8. Can you imagine if they had to advertise the truth?

    For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.

  9. Get a grip. If you think air travel is uncomfortable, try Greyhound. But they both get you where you want to go quickly and relatively cheaply.

    1. I was traveling from Seattle to San Francisco on Greyhound in 1967; I was 24. I got lucky. Let me rephrase that. I got REALLY LUCKY!

      This cute college girl sat down next to me. She was gregarious, and started talking to me. Some hours later, I got off the bus with her in Grants Pass, Oregon. After an enjoyable night, she took me to meet her brother so he could show me his Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing. He not only showed it to me, he took me for a ride in it.

      I can’t remember her name, or what she looked like, but I remember vividly Michael and his red Gullwing. It was the highlight of my year. Thank you, Greyhound.

    2. THANK YOU, EB. Nothing more tedious than people’s “OMG THE AIRLINES ARE SO HORRIBLE!!1!” bitching. Naturally, Kleiman didn’t mention how much he paid for his ticket, or the fact that aviation has become remarkably safe and reliable. Ho-hum.

      Or maybe he’s just grouchy after a 15-hour flight. That happens to me, too.

      1. Does that safety and reliability depend on screens you can’t turn off and food you can’t eat?

  10. My worst experience in the past few years was on a Delta regional partner out of Mobile, AL on a Saturday in 2010. The Canadair Jet developed some sort of minor fault – ice blocking a sensor – that should take about 15 minutes to resolve. Unfortunately the airline was not paying to have service personnel on site at the airport over the weekend so one needed to be called in — taking over two hours.

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