About Bob Rehak

I started this blog to share thoughts on how changes in the media environment affect almost everything in life. I have spent more than forty years in communications, most of them in advertising and marketing. My academic background includes a stint as a professor of advertising at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Why I’ll never fly United Airlines again

Warning: Rant ahead. This is about the erosion of customer service and convenience at United Airlines and how an app dealt the deathblow to a decades-old relationship.

Because I am 6’6″ tall, they long ago squeezed me out of coach and forced me to buy first-class tickets. Now, their avarice is squeezing me out of the sky. If ever there were an argument for splitting up a behemoth to create more competition in an industry, United is it. Are you listening, Congress and FAA?

This story starts innocently enough. Last week, I had reservations to/from Chicago on United Airlines. While checking in at the airport kiosk, I was presented with an array of automated up-sell pitches.

  • Do you want to check extra luggage (for a fee)? (No.)
  • Do you want to purchase additional miles? (No.)
  • Do you want to purchase additional legroom? (No.)

“Gee. Enough already!” I said to myself. Technology in the service of greed was slowing things down.

But why hurry? I had the pleasure of a 90-minute TSA line ahead. I got x-rayed, got groped, got my hair gel confiscated, got to the gate … and found no nearby seating. So I stood in a boarding line for another half hour.

Once on-board, I found that my first-class seat didn’t recline and that the padding was as thin as a pancake. Net: I’ve had more comfortable rides on live bulls.

United made up for it, though, by not serving a meal on a lunchtime flight. Nor did we get any of those little extras that you expect with a first-class ticket.

But those were just minor inconveniences. Because United charges so much to check bags, they have trained customers to carry on their luggage. So naturally, take off was delayed as people tried to squeeze it all into overhead compartments.

Better yet, when they ran out of overhead room in coach, the flight attendant tried to make more room by moving luggage around. My one, small carry-on wound up several rows back, behind some giant bags. This meant I couldn’t get to my reading glasses during a two-hour and forty-five minute flight. But what the hell! You have to play hurt, right?

My adventure was just starting, though. For the return flight, also in first class, I managed to get to the airport early. You guessed it. I could take an earlier, less full flight … for an up-charge. Again, I declined.

Now, for the exciting third and final act. After waiting two hours for my original flight, an attendant suggested downloading the United app. It was supposed to improve my “customer experience” by allowing me to watch in-flight video on my 4-inch smartphone. But as I was exploring the app’s features, I learned that United had wiped out all of my frequent flier miles – years’ worth … without warning. So when I returned to Houston, I contacted them. I was told that my miles had been taken away because I didn’t fly United enough. However … you guessed it … I could buy them back … for a fee!

At this point, I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve met nicer pickpockets.” United Airlines charges extra for service that they don’t deliver, then punishes me when I don’t fly United enough! That’s genius, folks! I’ll tell you this. Vladimir Putin could learn a thing or two from United Airlines.

So I wrote United and said, “Please reinstate my miles and I will continue flying United. Don’t and I won’t.” They refused to restore my miles.

It was the last straw. They won. They beat me. Squashed me like a bug. Eighty-six thousand employees, an army of bean counters and legions of lawyers working together utterly destroyed decades of goodwill.

I’m not the only upset passenger. Within the last week, my wife and son had equally delightful experiences on United – each at different airports. Incredibly, both had flights cancelled and were re-booked on flights that had already taken off!

United managed to screw up three people in one household in one week … all in separate incidents. What are the odds? Pretty good evidently … if you’re United Airlines.

Last year, United experienced a 4.4% year-over-year decline in revenue per available seat mile in 2015. And the trend is worsening. For the first-quarter of this year, United Airline’s revenue per available seat mile decreased even more – 7.4% compared to the first quarter of 2015.

Is it because of the way United treats customers? Surely not! In a company press release, Oscar Munoz, president and chief executive officer of United Airlines, insisted, “I am extremely proud of United’s … strong results – including the improvements in our … customer satisfaction.”

Earth to Oscar! What will United do next to improve my satisfaction? Install pay toilets? Charge extra for real toilet paper? Offer locks on loos … for an extra fee?

There was a time when airlines competed on the basis of service; now they compete by eliminating competition. Mergers have given the top four U.S. airlines a combined market share of more than 80%. Where is Teddy Roosevelt when you need him? Will Congress please wake up? This is an election year. Candidates, take note. Focus on something people really care about. Reduction of customer choice has allowed United and others to tack surcharges on the pain they inflict. Where and when will it all stop?

For me, it stops here and it stops now. I’m not waiting for Congress. I plan on flying Chevrolet whenever I can from now on.

The seat in my Tahoe will recline. It has plenty of padding. I don’t have to pay extra for legroom. I can leave whenever I want. I can eat better food. TSA won’t grope me. My luggage will be safe. And I won’t have to pay extra to change lanes.

It may take a few more hours to get there, but I’ll save thousands of dollars and be far more comfortable. Best of all, I’ll bet I meet some really nice people along the way.

Note: I wrote this post in 2016 and did not post it until December 2022. I have never flown United in all that time.

Social media encouraging graffiti in National Parks

An Associated Press story by Michelle L. Price dated April 28, 2016, states that rangers in Arches National Park were investigating graffiti carved so deeply into an arch that it might be impossible to erase.

According to park Superintendent Kate Cannon, the carvings measure about four feet across and three feet high, and are part of a “tidal wave of graffiti” at national parks in recent years.

Two years ago, at least eight national parks began cleaning up graffiti on famous  landscapes after damage was shared and discovered on social media.

Social media seems to be driving this increased vandalism, but Cannon also noted that  graffiti generally has become inexplicably popular among visitors. She hopes public outrage can reduce the behavior.

Defacing surfaces in a national park is illegal and punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

My Take

Clearly, six months in jail and $5000 is not enough of a deterrent to protect the parks.

I remember a National Parks public service campaign years ago that said, “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.” As a child, those simple words left a lasting impression … as did the parks themselves. Never have I felt as close to the creator as I have when visiting our national parks and immersing myself in their incomparable splendor. Four billion years of geologic history are exposed within the walls of Zion Canyon, one of the most magical and mystical places on earth.

It deeply troubles me that defacing such wonders has become a social media sport. Surely, this isn’t what the inventors of FaceBook had in mind as they were inventing the network. How pathetic these vandals are … desecrating sacred places in minutes that took eons to make.

Every national park I have ever visited has something special about it that sets it apart from the surrounding countryside. Each park is part of our priceless national heritage, something visionary men and women fought to preserve for all mankind and all time.

How popular are the parks? I’m not the only person to feel as strongly about them as I do. Here’s an amazing statistic. NFL attendance last year was approximately 17 million. But national park attendance during the same period was more than 307 million. That’s 18 times more! Also consider that the U.S. population during 2015 was estimated to be 321 million.

I lump the thoughtless, misguided, narcissistic delinquents who deface our parks right down there with terrorists.

We should borrow a slogan from the anti-terrorism handbook – “If you see something, say something … whether it’s in the parks or on the Internet.” Clearly, rangers can’t be everywhere at once. Give them a hand.

New billboards track people’s movements

Michael Balsamo of the Associated Press reported on May 1, 2016, that New York Senator Charles Schumer is calling for a federal investigation into an outdoor advertising company’s latest effort to target billboard ads to specific consumers. Schumer called the Clear Channel Outdoor Americas billboards “spying billboards,” a claim denied by Clear Channel.

Clear Channel, which operates more than 675,000 billboards throughout the world, argues that “spying” is inaccurate. The company insists it only uses anonymous data collected by other companies that certify they are following consumer protection standards. Further, Clear Channel claims it aggregates the data to protect confidentiality.

In a video on its website, Clear Channel says it “measures consumers’ real-world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day, analyzing data on direction of travel, billboard viewability, and visits to specific destinations.”

Clear Channel then maps that data against Clear Channel’s displays, allowing advertisers to buy ads in places that “reach specific behavioral audience segments,” says the company.

Clear Channel calls this program RADAR.

Senator Schumer says an investigation is necessary because “most people don’t realize their location data is being mined, even if they agreed to it at some point by accepting the terms of service of an app that later sells their location information.”

My Take

Advertisers have always tried to target consumers as tightly as possible to maximize the efficiency of their ad budgets. Nothing new there!

But it’s not immediately clear how the content of billboards changes based on the group of people meandering through a place like Times Square at any given moment. Nor is it immediately clear how the data is aggregated and how large the aggregations are. Finally, it is not clear whether the company has the ability to dis-aggregate data to track specific individuals. For instance, could the data be used to track the movement of someone through a city? And, in less scrupulous hands, could the technology be used to harvest highly personal information from my phone, such as account numbers, health data, etc.

I personally don’t want a billboard company tracking all of my movements. While I DON”T mind seeing relevant information on billboards, I DO worry about the erosion of personal privacy.

Distracted Driving Accidents Increased Last Year

According to the SR22 Agency, distracted driving accidents increased last year. 424,000 people were injured, up from 421,000 the previous year. Distracted driving includes far more than texting at the wheel, which is still the most widespread and dangerous distraction.  Other common distractions include:

  • Any use of a mobile phone or smart phone, including, but not limited to: texting, calling, browsing the web, etc.;
  • Drinking and eating at the wheel;
  • Talking to the other people in the car;
  • Personal grooming, like putting on makeup or brushing your hair at the wheel;
  • Any use of non-essential technology, like using the GPS system, watching videos, fiddling with the controls on the radio/MP3 player/CD player, etc.

Despite the well publicized dangers of distracted driving, many people still have not gotten the message; a disproportionately high number of distracted drivers are young.  The NHTSA says that 27% of all drivers who cause fatal accidents by driving distracted are under the age of 20.

My Take

The education curve on distracted driving seems to be much like the one on using seat belts a generation ago. Many people resisted them for a variety of reasons, including a young female friend of mine. I remember discussing the issue with her.  She felt that if she died in a car accident there would be nothing to worry about.  I pointed out to her that most accidents involve more than one car and that most accidents don’t include fatalities. I urged her to consider facial disfigurement as a larger risk. The next time I got in a car with her, she used her seat belt.

Perhaps we’re just talking to teens the wrong way. They may value looks more than life. They may see the possibility of a fatal injury as too remote given the seat belts, air bags and crumple zones built into cars these days.  Scars may represent a far larger deterrent.

The SR 22 site contains a number of educational videos that you may want to have your teens watch.

Facebook Depression?

In an online survey, the Center on Media and Child Health correlated the use of Facebook among college students, their feelings of envy and depression.

The study included 736 college students (68% female) enrolled in introductory journalism courses. Their mean age was 19 years,

The study found that heavy Facebook users were significantly more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Apparently, envy was the mediating factor. Users who did not feel envy when using Facebook were less likely to experience depression.

Ironically, a separate study by the Pew Foundation found that more than 80% of people on social networking sites exaggerate their profiles or outright lie.

My take: Perhaps if the budding journalists were aware of that, many would be less depressed. The congenitally honest seem to put themselves not only at a disadvantage, but at higher risk as well.

Cell Phone Use Affecting Restaurant Wait Times

A story in the Daily Mail claims that a manager at a ‘busy NYC restaurant’ found that customers constantly using their cell phones were to blame for a dramatic increase in restaurant wait times nowadays.

The proprietor reviewed surveillance videos from 2004 and 2014. He found that the average time people spent in the restaurant skyrocketed from one hour and five minutes to one hour and fifty-five minutes during that period.
He claims that the videos showed customers are now preoccupied with checking texts and emails, taking photos, and complaining about problems connecting to WiFi.  According to the article, cell phones have become a large distraction for customers, and  are preventing them from ordering and eating as efficiently as they once did.

Holding down table turn times are the key to profitability in any busy restaurant. The longer people linger, the fewer customers restaurants can serve, and the longer people at the door have to wait. The proprietor finished with a plea for common courtesy.
This increase in restaurant wait times is yet another unintended consequence of new media. People are too busy interacting with people they are not with to pay attention to the people they are with. They slow service for everyone.

Signs of Cyberbullying in Children

The Center on Media and Child Health publishes an electronic newsletter called Media Health Matters. The October 2014 edition contained tips to help parents  understand when their children could be being cyberbullied. The phenomenon itself has received much attention in mainstream media. However the tips for spotting cyberbullying have not been.

Children are often reluctant to tell parents that they have been cyberbullied because they fear reprisals or criticism.  Here are some tips offered by the Center that may help start a dialog. Look out for these warning signs, says the Center:

  • Becoming upset or sad after using the internet or mobile phone
  • Avoiding talking about computer or cell phone use.
  • Withdrawing from family, friends, and activities that they typically enjoy
  • A sudden or gradual drop in grades
  • Not wanting to go to school or specific activities, especially when peer groups are involved
  • Changes in behavior, attitude, sleep, appetite or showing signs of depression or anxiety.

For more information, read their entire article on Cyberbullying.

The Connected Lifestyle and Stress

The Gallup organization today released a new survey about stress and the always-on, connected lifestyle. They studied two groups of people: those who answer work emails outside of working hours and those who don’t use email for work.

Not surprisingly, those who use email outside of working hours find that they can never get away from their work. The tug of the electronic leash creates higher stress levels for them compared to those who don’t use email for work.

Surprisingly, however, they also found that the email group was happier. I doubt it was because of getting emails from Dubai at 3am. My guess is that this study reflects from other socioeconomic divisions which just happen to coincide with email. There’s probably a high correlation between email, income and the managerial class.

Nevertheless, there’s a high correlation between stress, weight gain and cardiovascular disease.

Last year, a garbage truck managed to rip the door off my dumpster enclosure at work. The company that did the damage told me that it was my responsibility to get it fixed and that they would pay for it (but not my time). As someone who sells time for a living and works 14 hours a day, I complained bitterly. Their response: “Welcome to the American dream.”

Over Easter weekend, I got a flurry of emails in the middle of the night, from a client in the Netherlands.  Stressful? You bet. Am I ready to throw my smartphone in the dumpster? Not really.

The Productivity Paradox

American society is built on contradictions. We worship independence but crave connection. We want freedom, but seek commitment. We venerate efficiency, but chase new technologies that can actually decrease our productivity. I call this the Productivity Paradox.

Huh? Case in point: Apple IOS 7. I hate it. Somebody must like it; Apple sure is selling a lot of iPhones and iPads. But to me, most of the changes are a major step backward in productivity. They changed the way features work without really improving their functionality in most cases. The result is confusion that saps productivity. It’s frustrating.

Example 1: The calendar function. The purpose of keeping a calendar is to provide reminders of important events. Apple gave the world a gift when it built alerts into its calendar system. I would be lost without them. But in IOS 7, they actually hid the alert function. I spent ten minutes today looking for it. I was ready to throw my iPhone in the trash when I accidentally clicked on something that didn’t appear to be clickable and discovered where they had hidden it. I’m sure some designer was basking in the afterglow of his simple, elegant interface … that totally baffled the user – me, someone who has never used anything but Apple products for the last 30 years. Duh? Why would you hide the reminder feature in a calendar. Does no one do usability testing anymore?

Example 2: The Map App. This actually works better than it used to … if you can figure out how to use it. In previous iterations of the Map App, you would type in an address, press go and be guided to your destination. Now you type in your address and are confronted with six meaningless, non-intuitive icons which you must press randomly to get into “guide me there” mode.

If these were isolated examples, I would dismiss them. But they aren’t. They’re typical of this so-called upgrade which amounts to little more than an elegant purple fart from one of the world’s great technology companies. Somebody, somewhere has lost their way at Apple. They’ve traded “simple” for the “appearance of simple.” They’ve confused design changes with productivity improvements.

Apple wasn’t the first to try to pass off a new look for productivity improvements. Microsoft has been changing the location of features in its popular Office suite for years without adding much to the functionality of the software. Every time they move functions around, I waste time looking for them.

But Apple has outdone even Microsoft. On top of senseless changes to its IOS, Apple has done away with documentation so that users are forced to figure out these non-intuitive changes on their own. Net net: the 200 plus improvements in IOS 7 that Apple brags about are wasting my time. Somebody please put the adults in charge again.

Why do I call this the Productivity Paradox? Designers and developers must have the freedom to improve their products. But they they need to realize that every time they change a widget, it’s going to force their most loyal users to relearn the software. Developers sell these changes as productivity improvements but they actually decrease productivity.

If there’s a genuine improvement, great. But if there isn’t, please don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Texting and Walking

Years ago, a cruel joke often applied to the less coordinated was that “He couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.” The idea of not being able to do two such mindless tasks simultaneously was seen as the pinnacle of incompetence. Fast forward 50 years. Today, it seems that texting and walking is a serious problem for most people. In the time it takes to look down and respond to a text message, you can walk across a busy intersection.

Now here’s the scary part. Many people behind the wheel are not paying attention either. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 23 percent of all car crashes in 2010 were caused by distracted drivers. A Fox News article citing research from the Journal of Injury Prevention pointed out that pedestrians who text or talk on their phones are less cautious and walk more slowly than undistracted walkers.

Researchers monitored 1,102 walkers at 20 different intersections in Seattle, Wash. They found that one out of every three people used their phones to talk, listen to music or text while they crossed the street. On average, music listeners walked slightly faster than undistracted pedestrians, but texters took 18 percent longer to cross the street. Moreover, the texters were nearly four times more likely to disobey traffic signals, cross mid-intersection, or walk without looking both ways. Women were twice as likely as men to exhibit at least one unsafe crossing behavior.

A research team at Stony Brook University conducted a study around texting while walking and found that participants consistently veered away from walking a straight path by a 60 percent deviation. This could explain why people walk into light poles, step off curbs, fall into fountains, and even walk off piers while texting.

An study published in PLOS One (the Public Library of Science) by Siobhan M. Schabrun, Wolbert van den Hoorn, Alison Moorcroft, Cameron Greenland, Paul W. Hodges explains how this may happen. They conducted their research at the University of Queensland, School of Health and Rehabilitation Science and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Clinical Research Excellence in Spinal Pain, Injury and Health, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

According to the authors, cognitive distraction, altered mechanical demands, and the reduced visual field associated with texting are likely causes.They asked 26 healthy individuals to walk at a comfortable pace in a straight line over a distance of approximately 30 feet while 1) walking without the use of a phone, 2) reading text on a mobile phone, or 3) typing text on a mobile phone.

Compared to normal waking, “when participants read or wrote text messages they walked with: greater absolute lateral foot position from one stride to the next; slower speed; greater rotation range of motion (ROM) of the head with respect to global space; the head held in a flexed position; more in-phase motion of the thorax and head in all planes, less motion between thorax and head (neck ROM); and more tightly organized coordination in lateral flexion and rotation directions. While writing text, participants walked slower, deviated more from a straight line and used less neck ROM than reading text. Although the arms and head moved with the thorax to reduce relative motion of the phone and facilitate reading and texting, movement of the head in global space increased and this could negatively impact the balance system. Texting, and to a lesser extent reading, modify gait performance.

They concluded: Texting or reading on a mobile phone may pose an additional risk to safety for pedestrians navigating obstacles or crossing the road.

77% of the world’s population now owns a mobile phone according to the authors. Although the dangers of typing text while driving have received considerable interest, attention is now shifting to texting while walking.

People who type while crossing the street in experience more hits by motor vehicles. They look away from the street more frequently than those who are not distracted. Likewise, emailing on a mobile phone reduces gait velocity, stride length and stance phase during walking. These findings, coupled with a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians injured while talking or texting have led to bans on texting while walking in some towns in the United States.