No, US Airways Did Not Kill This Woman

When I first heard about Carol Anne Gotbaum’s sad death at the Phoenix airport last month, I didn’t plan on writing about it. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read about it here.) It’s not that I didn’t find it newsworthy, but it seemed pretty straightforward to me and I didn’t think there was much I could add.

But after reading this opinion piece in the Washington Post yesterday and getting comments about it on another post, I decided to say something.

See, you can blame airlines for a lot of things, but blaming them for this woman’s death is absolutely ridiculous. But let me back up. There are actually two issues here.

First, we have the question about who is responsible for Ms Gotbaum’s death. The author of this article actually has the gall to blame US Airways’ overbooking policies for her death. Now, I can point out all the inaccuracies myself, but instead I’d recommend reading the US Airways response that was published in the Washington Post.

This had nothing to do with overbooking and instead had to do with some strangely erratic actions of a woman clearly in trouble. But let’s move beyond this ridiculousness and get to the meat of the article.

See, I think the author thought that this would be a good incident to help her advance the cause of saying that US Airways is a horrible airline because they bumped her off a flight awhile ago. It’s pretty poor journalism, but we can still try and examine her arguments.

. . . few reports have focused on the fact that the airlines involved, US Airways and its subcontractor, Mesa Airlines, are notorious for overbooked flights.

It’s important to know that almost every airline overbooks (JetBlue not included). The government knows about it and even tracks the number of people who were involuntarily denied boarding. So, let’s look it up. The most recent report shows second quarter 2007 results. Of the 18 airlines reporting, Mesa ranked 9th and US Airways 12th, both actually slightly better than the industry average. In the first quarter, US Airways was still 12th, but Mesa was 14th. This time they were worse than the industry average but hardly the worst offenders. The fourth quarter of last year saw the airlines finish 11th and 12th respectively (out of 19 airlines) and we can go on and on.

Does US Airways overbook? Yes. Do they have denied boardings? Yes. Are they notorious for it? Only if several other airlines are considered notorious for it as well. I don’t see why they should be singled out here. What else you got?

. . . to increase profitability, Mesa understaffs all its sales counters, baggage staff and other personnel and slashed health care and pensions, while US Air overbooks all flights and often issues duplicate seat assignments.

Guilty as charged. But so is every other airline. Why the personal vendetta against US Airways? Oh right, it’s because the author was bumped once.

The pilot told us they were terribly underpaid and overworked and that flying conditions were unsafe.

I have never met a pilot who would willingly fly an unsafe aircraft with passengers on it. This sounds like someone who wanted to get management in trouble because they’re unhappy about their pay. I understand the frustration – regional pilots in general don’t make much money – but if there are truly unsafe conditions, I would assume this pilot would not be flying those planes and would report it.

Other staffers told us that many US Air/Mesa personnel were dispirited and overworked, which often led them to vent their frustration on passengers, in a sort of “kick the dog” syndrome

Again, I don’t see why this is limited to Mesa and US Airways (not US Air). Just about everyone in the industry is overworked and dispirited. Sad but true.

We can go on and on here, but it’s all more of the same. The way I see it, the author has long had a grudge against US Airways and incredibly thought that she could use this woman’s death to nail them. She interviewed a bunch of angry employees to get some more ammo, and there you have it. What I don’t see is any effort to actually check facts and get opposing viewpoints from US Airways’ management.

There have been plenty of intelligent arguments about the bigger question of what is wrong with US Airways, Mesa, and this industry overall (answer: a lot), but this is clearly not one of them. This is just a poor attempt at a smear job.

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14 Responses to No, US Airways Did Not Kill This Woman

  1. David says:

    Agreed. It’s amazing that the Washington Post saw fit to print Bardach’s questionable rant. The amazing thing about Bardach’s op-ed piece is that she never explains why she and her husband were waiting on line to check in at the airport. There might be a good reason, but it’s never explained. Most savvy travelers check in online from home and get their seat assignments in advance, minimizing the chances of being denied boarding at the airport. While Bardach may have a legitimate grievance against US Airways and its reginal affiliate Mesa, she does not make a convincing case with regard to her own experience, much less the tragic death of Carol Gotbaum.

  2. Dr. G Mobile says:

    I generally agree with you Crank, but the “buzz” around Mesa isn’t confined to that Wash Post article. There is a lot of “XYZ airline is the worst airline!” chatter out there but there is something different in the buzz around the operational performance of Mesa and its cutting of cost corners that seems to make the Mesa complaints a little different from the rest.

    I actually quite like Jonathan Ornstein. He’s entertaining to say the least. But I can imagine he might not be fun to work for.

  3. CF says:

    You’re absolutely right, Dr. G. There are plenty of things pointing to problems at Mesa, and we can talk about that all day long. My problem is that this isn’t the right argument to point out those problems. It’s just bad.

  4. As always Crank your points are well taken and the article certainly reads like a personal vendetta. But there is a broader issue here that is worthy of discussion.

    Airline travel today has become a highly unpleasant and frustrating experience. And the unpleasantness is often exacerbated by ground and security personnel, who are increasingly rude, indifferent, and in some cases downright mean. It’s hardly surprising that violence against airline personnel is on the upswing.

    While it’s unfair to say US Airways was responsible for Ms. Gotbaum’s death, I can’t help but suspect that the treatment the vulnerable woman no doubt endured after missing her flight contributed to her breakdown. It’s outrageous that airlines can get away with treating their customers with such disdain.

  5. Tom S says:

    I have a few points to make here. First, I would like to point out that I personally believe that US Air is the worst airline (coupled with Mesa) in the US. On a 10 point scale, I rate them a 0.1. I basically refuse to fly them anymore, and the entire experience of flying on them is one of the most unpleasant things I have endured (and paid for).

    My rant in the previous paragraph doesn’t make the other airlines much better. I put most of them below a 2 on a 10 point scale of pleasantness. United, Southwest, Midwest, American…all have made travel unpleaseant for me this year alone (including sleeping in more than one airport overnight because they can’t deliver). I still like Southwest, but the only airline where I have a semi-pleasant experience is on Jetblue (I might rate them a 7 because of the TVs). Internationally, TAM is the worst I have been on, but that is only because Brasil is just a nightmare.

    If the experience of flying is going to improve, people (an overwhelming majority) need to be willing to pay more for plane tickets (or just stop flying). I would like to see another form of transportation that would make sense, like trains, but I don’t think I will ever see it happen (how do those Europeans do it?). Amtrack is a mess as well, and the only reason they are still around is because of huge government subsidies. The bottom line is that for airlines, or any form of transportation to become “pleasant”, people will have to pay. As long as they won’t pay, they “get what they pay for”. The only person you can blame is everyone. This isn’t a problem with an easy solution. If it was easy to fix, this discussion would never occur.

  6. Andy says:

    It was an incoherent rant: they found people who were willing to trade places, fly later and get the compensation but the airline employees “talked them out of it”?! Why? So now it’s the employees who’re evil?

    The press already mentioned that the deceased showed up after the bridge was pulled and her name was called repeatedly…

  7. erics says:

    Tom: I haven’t flown US Airways enough to debate you, but I’d be curious to know if you have flown Northwest Airlines a few times. I shudder to think there is actually an airline worse the Northwest Airlines.

    Cranky: How about a poll of your readers to determine America’s worst airline. I will even write the press release for you.

  8. CMH says:

    I like how Bardach sued US Airways after she got home. She makes it sound like she has never had a bad airline experience. And she felt she deserved $7500 for her troubles?

  9. MB says:

    CF’s argument that US Airways is no worse that the others is not exactly a ringing defense of the airline. Come on CF: quibbling about the journalism involved misses the essential point. Your argument sounds like you’re flacking for the industry.

    Did they kill this woman? No, and the author didn’t claim that. Are they irresponsibly ratcheting up the pressure on their customers to the point that incidents are increasing in frequency and intensity? I’d like to see an argument to the contrary.

    This company, as a calculated business decision, routinely abuses thousands of passengers that, ironically, are paying for the privilege. And it’s not just overbooking. That others do so as well is not persuasive.

    The issue boils down to the power relationship; only the airlines can call in guys with guns and handcuffs when the people they abuse object too loudly. A transaction with airlines is barely discernible from a transaction with government: in the final analysis, one side has coercive power and the other side just hopes for the best.

    Normal businesses would seek to please their customers rather than have the annoying ones dragged off in chains. The Gotbaum case is a metaphor for the current state of airlines. Just go overseas and see the difference!

    It all argues for an assertive re-regulation by the government of an industry that is unaccountable by any traditional free market standard. There’s not a lot of consumer choice or information available when you’re stranded somewhere by these folks.

    While we may not need to regulate routes, etc., service standards can certainly be enforced. A cop on the beat on behalf of the traveling public is desperately needed.

  10. CF says:

    Thanks for the comments, MB. I’m not personally a fan of partial regulation in any way. Unfortunately, I think that’s effectively what we have now. If you want to regulate service standards, you might as well just re-regulate the entire industry, because it becomes increasingly difficult to operate a profitable business if you have no control over it.

    I remain convinced that the best way to fight an airline you don’t like is to not fly that carrier. The problem we have is that consumers do not adequately punish an airline that treats them poorly, so there is little incentive for the airline to get better.

    Much of this stems from the fact that most people book airlines like they buy a commodity. They look for the lowest price and that’s it. There are plenty of people who hate US Airways and any other airline, but they continue to fly if the price is right.

    If enough people start paying more money to fly a better airline, the worse airlines will be in trouble. That’s exactly what happened to United in Chicago back in 2000 when they’re operation melted down. That’s also why airlines like Southwest and JetBlue have been able to grow, but in growth, they’ve found themselves with similar problems as the legacy carriers.

    It may be easy to complain about how poorly the airlines treat people sometimes, but it’s actually quite hard to ensure that every single person is treated well in a business with so many moving parts. To do that, it requires more staffing, more spare aircraft, more excess terminal space to be used during irregular ops, etc. But guess what? That results in higher fares and people don’t like that. They’ll fly the airline that’s cheaper.

  11. MB says:

    CF: You write as if the market was actually functioning and as if consumer choice was likely to produce the discipline that competition compels. Even the industry’s defenders acknowledge that the airlines operate as oligopolies. Moreover, they have deftly protected themselves with sweetheart exemptions and limitations courtesy of a compliant Congress. Meanwhile, the airlines continue their cynical games. Remember the “voluntary” Passenger Bill of Rights they promised?

    There are two alternatives when markets fail: The tort system or regulation. Lacking faith in rapacious trial lawyers and class action suits, I would opt for judicious regulation.

    Yes, it would add costs, but not unduely so. After all, they’re already (ostensibly) regulated on a range of operational issues. If they’re all required to operate on a level regulatory playing field, in terms of how many people can be crammed into an airplane without safety and service blowback, baggage, overbooking, transparency, etc., they can plan accordingly.

  12. Sam says:

    I have flown both US Airways and Northwest and I have to agree with Eric that NWA is pretty bad. Their set-up at Detroit Metro is a mess and they have people that barley speak english checking you in. I have also flown US Airways and had quite a pleasent trip. They worked hard to re-confirm me when I missed my flight and had no problems doing so. I enjoyed flying with them and plan on doing so in the future.

  13. CS says:

    Just happened across this post today, but the thing that struck me about the incident is the airline rebuttal pointing out that she got there at 1:05pm for a 1:13pm flight, but the door was closed and the jetbridge pushed back. 1:05pm is, last I checked, 8 minutes *before* 1:13pm. A reasonable person could believe that getting to the gate 8 minutes before the flight left was sufficient to get on the plane. But in most cases it’s not — not for US Airways and not for other airlines either.

    I’ve seen this insanity lead to more incidents with irate customers at airport gates than I can count (none involving me, so this is no personal grudge). For reasons that I have never understood, airlines do not schedule the flight at the time they want their customers at the plane; they schedule the flight 10-15 minutes *after* they want their customers at the plane. This makes no sense. If I had a dentist appointment at 1:13 and I showed up at 1:05, they wouldn’t say ‘no, sorry, you were supposed to be here at 12:58.’ If I am meeting a friend for coffee at 10am and I show up at 9:52, she doesn’t say ‘why are you late?’ (indeed, she herself probably isn’t even there yet). Airlines are intentionally misleading with their departure times, and then disclaim responsibility for the consequences.

    If airlines were to promote/publish their flights with the times they require passengers to be at the gate to keep their seats, things would go much more smoothly for passengers and airlines alike.

  14. You know, I agree with CS. The airlines won’t be doing this anytime soon unless they all do it at the same time. (The first airline to do it makes their schedules look less competitive.) I know there is already a few departure and arrival times. (the one customers see, the one the FAA sees, the one the airline actually expects the flight to last, etc…)

    If anyone does this first I think it’ll be JetBlue. Its a bringing humanity back to flying err jetting thing.

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