“When you do this 10,000 times a day, you just cut to the chase,” he said.
The fortress held for a time. It was an utterly unremarkable moment in contemporary American air travel. And then something in the man turned. The training broke, and a human spilled out. He apologized for being gruff and asked me to distinguish the he-and-I of this transaction from the he-and-I who, had we met elsewhere, “would probably be having a couple of beers.”
“The system is designed not to repair this bag,” he said, trying out his new guise of candor. “The system,” he added, “is designed for certain people to win.”
It’s a truism nowadays that American air travel has lost whatever romance it once possessed. Foreigners from troubled places take solace in at least having planes and terminals better than those in the United States. Passengers from LAX to JFK and ORD to IAH have resigned themselves to hunger, deriving comfort from being near enough to their knees to eat them, should things get dire.
Explanations and excuses abound. But the United man seemed to see the situation — of the airlines, and perhaps, in a larger way, of the country — more clearly than most.
He saw how all those layers of corporate training and customer-service jargon separate workers like him from the human reality of what they do. Maybe they got into the business because they liked the idea of helping people get to weddings, sales meetings and funerals. But somewhere down the line, after so many utterances of “I’m not authorized” and “unavailable right now” and “not showing up in my system,” the heart goes numb. It becomes natural to stop imagining your customers as humans with problems and dreams like your own.
“You know what semantics is?” the United man said, when asked about all the fine print preventing him from fixing bags. The purpose of the fine print, he said, is to limit the number of people who persevere all the way to a repaired bag. “It’s designed to fend off the herd,” he said. “We’re only going to cover so much of this stuff — because this stuff happens a lot.”
The United man saw something else, too. He saw how, in a changing country, stratification is infecting domains once immune to it. Had I been traveling in first class, he said, “you probably wouldn’t even have to talk to me.” Just dial a number, and they would be right on the case.
Later he said something that reminded me of the poor countries I’ve visited. He urged me to find some way, any way, of getting to United’s chairman and chief executive, Jeff Smisek: “If you can get to Smisek, you want to let him know that this is not the way to treat customers.”
The American credo has always been a strange, contradictory one: adamant about the right to differential outcomes of wealth and privilege, and adamant about the right to fairness and equal treatment. In aviation, that used to mean different food in first class and economy, perhaps, but food of some sort for all. Different baggage allowances, perhaps, but some bags allowed for everyone. Different degrees of intimacy in the customer service, perhaps, but a universal right to speak to a real person when aggrieved.
What is changing today is the erosion of the idea of a common minimum experience — in air travel, to be sure, but not only there.
The aviation experience is being chopped these days into a series of discrete moments, and each moment becomes an opportunity to upsell: You can stick with the dismal base model, or you can upgrade. The result is that American air travel has become a class system as intricate as some in the ancient world.
There is the no-legroom caste; the caste that buys $50 of extra, “economy-plus” legroom; and the plentiful-legroom caste up front. JetBlue sells special seats that come with early boarding and “early access to overhead bin space”; it also sells “Even More Speed” seats that bring an “expedited” security line. There are group numbers for boarding that depend on who you are and how much you paid for your ticket. There is the new Global Entry program, in which you pay to circumvent the normally tiresome immigration process. High in the air, there are those who swipe credit cards to eat and those who don’t even get peanuts.
Considered in isolation, each of these changes probably makes sense. You can almost picture the PowerPoint slides about “dynamic customer segmentation” and such. Considered together, though, they contribute to making a country in which ordinary people lose faith in the fairness of things — in being entitled to certain basic treatment simply by virtue of being human.
United Airlines would seem to be betting on such a loss of faith. They have produced a lovely new advertisement, which they run on their overhead screens, extolling their relationship with professional golfers and the P.G.A. tour. The golfers give testimonials, talking about how specially United treats them. “We make their travel on United as seamless and enjoyable as possible,” a United representative named Lynne Strunk tells the camera.
Down below the screens, the customers watch. Their own experience of United is very different. But part of what makes stratified societies work is acceptance. Over time, people learn to bask in the reflected glow of the great and the good, instead of expecting to shine themselves. They learn that there are different rules for different kinds of people, and that this is O.K. They learn to be happy with peanuts — or, as the case may be, without them.