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.

Truth-Teller App from Washington Post Could Alter Nature of Political Dialog

Several weeks ago, I posted a tongue-in-cheek wish list for Web 2.0 improvements that helped tell truth from lies.

It turns out the Washington Post had already been working on a Truth-Teller Application under a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The prototype of the app made its debut in late January.

According to the Washington Post, the goal of Truth Teller is to fact check speeches in as close to real time as possible. The inspiration for the idea came during the last Republican primary election. Steven Ginsberg, the Post’s national political editor, was attending a rally for Michelle Bachman in an Iowa parking lot. Claims Ginsberg:

”For about 45 minutes she said a lot of things that I knew to not be true, and nobody else there knew that.”

Ginsberg thought there must be a way to offer people in the crowd a real-time accounting of politicians’ misstatements. He consulted with Cory Haik and others [1] at the Post. The  Truth Teller App is their attempt to offer such a service.

They based the prototype on a combination of several technologies. It generates a transcript from video using speech-to-text technology, matches the text to a database, and then displays, in real time, what’s true and what’s false.

For the prototype, the Post focused on the looming debate over tax reform, but hopes to expand their database to incorporate more issues in the future.

“It’s a proof of concept, a prototype in the truest sense,” says Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News at the Post.

To test Truth Teller from The Washington Post, visit truthteller.washingtonpost.com. You  can play videos from President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House John Boehner and other politicians and instantly see which statements are true, false or misleading.

Kaila Stein, writing in the American Journalism Review, “Haik realized that everyone at that rally probably had a phone in their hands, and that a program capable of detecting false claims on the spot could help people sort out fact from fiction. She envisioned a product like Shazam, a popular app that can recognize a song based on its sound; however, instead of identifying song and artist, Haik’s app would distinguish between political truth and lies.”

Fact checking is hardly a new concept for news organizations, but doing it in real time is new. It could fundamentally change the nature of political dialog. As I pointed out in another post on February 18, misinformation can be difficult to correct once the rumor mill of the Internet begins and search engines dutifully record millions of comments on it. Hearing or seeing something repeated so often and in such volume can make people think something is true when it, in fact, is not.

“Cognitively, it is much easier for people to accept a given piece of information than to evaluate its truthfulness. This stacks the deck in favor of accepting misinformation rather than properly rejecting it. … Researchers have found that misinformation is “sticky” and is often resistant to correction. Retractions are often ineffective and can sometimes backfire, strengthening incorrect beliefs.”

From Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing
By Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert, Norbert Schwarz and John Cook

The Post hopes to release a functional version of the app by the end of this year and  continue refining it after that. According to Stein, Haik and Ginsberg see their innovation as a game-changer. “My hope,” Ginsberg says, “is that, in its realized form, it fundamentally alters the political discourse in America.”


[1] The Washington Post Truth Teller team:
Cory Haik, Executive Producer for Digital News
Steven Ginsberg, National Political Editor
Joey Marburger, Mobile Design Director
Yuri Victor, UX Director
Siva Ghatti, Director, Application Development
Ravi Bhaskar, Principal Software Engineer
Gaurang Sathaye, Principal software engineer
Julia Beizer, Mobile Projects Editor
Sara Carothers, Producer

Ramifications of Decline of Trust in Media

SkepticJournalists have historically performed a watchdog function over the three main branches of government. The executive, judicial and legislative branches check the power of each other. Journalists watch over them all on behalf of the public and provide an additional check … or so the theory goes.

A 2012 poll by Gallup, Media Use and Evaluation, showed that trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, fairly and accurately has reached an all time low. It peaked  in 1976, the year after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency following the Washington Post investigation into the Watergate Scandal, but as the Gallup chart below shows, trust has been declining since then.

Gallup concluded:

“This is particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years.”

“Americans’ high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other.”

In this second, separate survey that you can see by following the link above, Gallup also  found that 60 percent of Americans see the media as biased, with 47% saying the media are too liberal and 13% saying they are too conservative. Republicans trust news media least, but curiously, Gallup found that they pay the most attention to national news.

My Take

For the moment, the lack of trust in news media seems to have caused people to become more vigilant rather than less engaged. However, one wonders when the switch will flip.

When people start to tune out, we are on the most slippery of slopes. We will lose the ultimate check-and-balance in society – an informed electorate.

Erosion of Trust in Information Fosters Polarization in Politics

A familiar thread running through many of these posts is trust. A good friend who is a very successful businessman once told me that “If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a business.” I have come to believe that saying with all my heart and soul. I think every copywriter, reporter and CEO should have it tattooed on his or her navel.

Trust is the currency of communication.

TrustWhen we don’t trust the information someone is sending us, we don’t trust him, her or them. This merely seeks to divide us. We may win elections or business deals with bad information, but we lose something larger – the relationships upon which long-term success is built.

Recent surveys indicate that the credibility of advertising and media (Pew, Gallup, Neiesen, Lab42 studies) is severely eroding. Both have fallen to about 25 percent. Said another way, three in four people automatically discount what they read, see or hear through the media, whether it’s programming, news, or advertising. By the way, that also is roughly the same percentage of people who falsify information on social media profiles.

How can we restore trust?

A good place to start is over in that far corner of the ring called truth and fairness. If you don’t believe “truth” is obtainable because it is too subjective, then let’s strive for fairness and balance.

I asked several friends, “what would you do to restore trust in the sources of information?” Here are some of the suggestions:

  1. Stop exaggerating to make your point. Yes, exaggeration sometimes gets attention. But it undermines acceptance.
  2. Acknowledge limitations of your information or knowledge.
  3. Be honest, open and fair. Don’t try to twist the facts to make a point. Selective regurgitation is not the way to get the gist of something right.
  4. Don’t withhold information that materially changes the meaning of something.
  5. Support your case with specifics. But don’t misrepresent their meaning to suit your ends. We’ve all seen too many election ads that take quotes out of context to twist the true meaning of what someone said. We’ve all seen too many people waving documents that purport to prove something is true when it is false.
  6. Cite original sources. Do your research. Don’t repeat rumors. And don’t just trust what a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend said. By the time something is filtered through a newspaper reporter who is quoted in a blog which is reposted in a tweet and then distributed in an email rant, the original meaning may have been lost. I had a conversation with my barber before the last election in which he claimed “Obama is a known communist.” Hmmmm. I thought he was a Democrat. So I asked the barber what made him think that. “Somebody wrote a book about it. Everyone knows it.” “What’s the name of the book?”  “I can’t remember.” “Well, can you tell me one thing he’s done that is communistic?” No response.
  7. Make it clear what is fact and what is your opinion of the facts.
  8. Acknowledge different sides of an argument and hold all sides to the same standard of truthfulness. Try to illuminate, not obfuscate. Nothing is more frustrating than when someone doesn’t acknowledge your point of view, but keeps spouting sound bites to make his or her point of view. This does nothing to advance the discussion, but leads to isolationism and gridlock.
  9. Don’t repeat falsehoods, even in jest. A surprising number of people get their news these days from “comedy news shows” that blur the distinction between fact and fantasy.
  10. Be suspicious of ad hominem attacks and avoid generalizations. Treat the other side with respect.

Counterfeiting the Currency of Communication

The partisan pursuit of self-interest often gets in the way of these principles. Unfortunately, when people cross these ethical lines, they undermine the trust that binds people together. People begin to trust only those that share their world view. Compromise is victimized. Politics become polarized. Winning arguments by counterfeiting the currency of communication is a prescription for disaster. The government won’t let people counterfeit its currency. Why do so many human beings willingly counterfeit their own?

How Context Impacts Interpretation

WARNING: This image is NOT what most people assume it is. It is an example of how even the “literal” can “lie.” The context in which something appears can turn meaning around 180 degrees.


Copyright © 2013 Rehak Creative Services, Inc.

In the 1970s, I spent much of my spare time with a Nikon F2 wandering through a Chicago neighborhood called Uptown. It was a pretty rough neighborhood at the time – a cauldron of poor Hispanics, African-Americans, Whites who had migrated up from the South and (reportedly) the nation’s single largest concentration of American Indians. Gangs and poverty ruled the neighborhood., Bars, flop houses and halfway homes dotted the streets.

The Chicago Tribune published many of my photos, but refused to publish this one. I took it on a cold morning when I ducked inside a store to change rolls of film. As I closed the  camera, I turned and saw this pair staring at me. I immediately dropped to my knee and clicked off five frames with my motor drive as the Black man withdrew the cigarette from his mouth.

Eager to learn more about these two and to obtain model releases, I engaged them in conversation and found that my photo was NOT what it appeared to be. The man had adopted the girl after marrying her mother. Several days later, I brought prints from my negatives to the family as a gift. I met the mother and learned that she had been a single mom who moved to the city from West Virginia to find work. Instead, she found herself living on the streets, cold and hungry. The Black man had taken her and her daughter in, provided them with food and shelter, and eventually married the mother. It seemed to be a very loving, interracial family.

“What’s going on here?”

When the Tribune editors saw the image, their jaws dropped. “What’s going on here?” they asked. I told them the story, but they refused to publish the image even after they knew the story behind it. They feared “it would start a race war.”

For more than 35 years, the image remained unpublished until today. One of my clients, an African-American, saw it a few years ago and almost became physically ill from what the image implied. I told her the story behind it and we remained good friends, but the encounter taught me the editors had been right.

Sometimes even an unaltered documentary image can create a false impression. Because of the social context in which we live, most people see this as pimp and child prostitute, not as loving father and adopted daughter. What was your first impression? Did you leap to the wrong conclusion? Most people do. They see it within a cultural context that is filled with racial distrust. They see the hat. They see the gleam in the man’s eye, the smile on his lips, the leer on the young girl’s face, and they assume the worst.

I learned a powerful lesson from this image. Words and images taken out of context can misrepresent the true meaning of something innocent. They can inflame the reader, fuel prejudice, and ultimately harm society. I publish this example, not to do any of those things, but in the hope that it will teach others how images can mislead.

Sometimes, the reader’s past causes him/her to misinterpret the meaning. Sometimes, people simply jump to the wrong conclusion because of personal experience, prejudice or media conditioning. And sometimes, “authors” deliberately mislead readers by withholding information that would allow them to interpret things properly. When that happens, there’s no way readers can get to the truth.

The Information Ghetto and The Mortgage Meltdown

In 1969, Elvis Presley recorded a haunting hit, “In the Ghetto” (with lyrics by Mac Davis). It spoke of the cycle of poverty. In the song, a boy, born in a Chicago ghetto lives a bleak and doomed life. He is killed, ironically, just as another child is born to suffer the same fate.

Today, many people live in information ghettos created by illiteracy, a kind of intellectual poverty. This often leads to a life of crime. Did you know, for instance, that the Texas Department of Corrections determines how many jail cells it will need ten years from now by assessing fourth grade reading scores? (Download Dismantling The Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline, by the American Leadership Forum Class XXV and The Children’s Defense Fund, 2009, p4; edited and designed by Rehak Creative Services).

As I was writing yesterday’s post about media illiteracy, suddenly another thought hit me like Charlie Chaplin’s piano falling out of the sky. “How many people can’t read?” If you can’t read, you can’t function in the Information Age.

So I googled “percent of Houstonians who are illiterate” and found this.

“Now more than ever literacy remains an issue for the Houston community. One in three adult Houstonians is functionally illiterate (from the National Adult Literacy Survey 2003).” Quoted at the Neuhaus Education Center in Bellaire, Texas.

Functionally illiterate people must rely on media such as television, radio, personal experience, conversations with others and images to get information. They cannot understand the richly detailed volumes of printed information in newspapers, books, libraries and on the Internet. It’s much more difficult for them to seek out information to learn new skills, become more productive, solve new problems, help other people, and fend off those trying to take advantage of them. They cannot evaluate the truth or falsity of information from as many points of view as you or I can. (See Triangulating on Truth in the Personal Essay section of this blog.)

StopSign“Functional illiteracy” is like the term “walking wounded.” It implies a small degree of sufficiency, but certainly not proficiency. It means being able to function at a low level, but not prosper at a high level. For instance, people may recognize the meaning of a stop sign, but not the intricacies of an adjustable rate mortgage. Thus, they would be vulnerable to predatory lending practices. The one-in-three estimate above helps explain, in part, the depth of the recent global financial crisis.

A brilliant documentary I viewed recently called The Flaw (Beak Street Films, 2011, directed by David Sington) contains interviews with homeowners around the country who got under water on their mortgages because:

  • They didn’t fully understand the implications of adjustable rate mortgages.
  • Media coverage focused on returns, not risk, fueling an unsustainable run-up in  prices that led to a housing bubble.
  • People assumed they could get out of the market before the bubble burst but failed to recognize early warnings.

In retrospect, it seems foolish that people didn’t see the risk. Heck, almost everyone believed the hype, not just consumers.

I would argue that the term “functionally illiterate” should apply to everyone who cannot understand signals needed to do their jobs properly or protect their interests.

Functional illiteracy within a financial niche contributed to many peoples’ failure to send up, see, or comprehend the significance of red flags. Underfunded buyers continued being sucked into the vortex of the American dream-turned-nightmare. That’s functional illiteracy on a thermonuclear, alter-the-course-of-global-evolution, let’s-all-drink-the-Kool-Aid scale. Sing it, Elvis:

“As her young man dies,
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
Another little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries”