What A Difference A Year Or A Week Makes (Or Doesn't)

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What a difference a year makes.

A year ago, almost to the day, we were excoriating Icon for its lopsided buyer contract that made draconian sound like an upgrade. In the midst of a beat down by the press, Icon circled the wagons at Sun ‘n Fun, conducted tight-lipped interviews, if any at all, and finally re-engineered the buyer agreement.

The year-to-the-day part came two weeks ago when the company had its first accident, or least the first significant one that we know about. Operating in Biscayne Bay off Miami, the aircraft had a hard landing and either shipped water or breached the hull and sunk up to the wings. No injuries. What’s different is that Icon reached out to us with a brief statement explaining the accident so we wouldn’t have to chase them down for the inevitable no comment or the usual enervating spin. Or be tempted to quote an Icon-hating source.

Note to companies: If whatever you do is about to hit the news cycle or already has, that’s the best way to tamp it down and get it out the news cycle as quickly as possible. United Airlines, take note.

In the news comment section, someone cracked: “So much for Icon training.” Tough crowd. Icon said the accident was its first in about 3500 hours of flying. So what does it mean? Absolutely nothing, other than this: If you fool around in boats that fly, you’ll eventually screw up a landing, hit an obstruction in the water or otherwise spooge something and you’ll sink one. Welcome to reality. No amount of training, no matter how perfect, will change that. When the type has 10 times as many hours, we’ll know more about its accident pattern. For now, it looks like par.

Is it news? Of course it’s news. In the same way we covered the early rash of Cirrus crashes was news. When a company throws down and says it’s going to change everything, we’re going to pay a lot more attention than if they just introduce another “exciting” white-painted airplane with a panel full of virtual reality. Once Cirrus beat back the accident rate, we covered that, too. Now we don’t cover Cirrus crashes unless there’s video of the CAPS deployment, and even that has become passť.

On a darker note, it has now been 631 days since I have not been allowed to fly in an Icon A5.

Gyrocopter Guy Two Years Later

What a difference two years makes.

Yes, it has been two years since the whacky postman, Doug Hughes, caused another Washington &^%fit by landing his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn, thereby becoming a graying American Mathias Rust.

At the time, I was outraged that he was so self-centered as to risk damaging the entire aviation community for his own narrow interests of highlighting political dysfunction by delivering 535 letters lamenting the infusion of big money into politics. Like many, I thought that maybe he shoulda just mailed the stupid letters. On the other hand, this sort of theater has been a durable feature of American politics and, in a way, is what a pluralistic democracy should be about. It occasionally features harmless civil disobedience.

Aye, I’ve mellowed. A recent story in Politico updated the Hughes story and noted that he was sentenced to four months in a federal slammer and served three, followed by a stint in a halfway house to ease his reintegration back into society. If that part sounds just slightly risible, consider this: When a fellow inmate asked Hughes what he was in for, he replied “illegally parking of a gyrocopter at the Capitol building.” Well, it was a little more than that, but not much more. That it came to that shows how paranoid we’ve become about terrorism juxtaposed with things that fly.

Why the United Story Won't Die

What a difference a week makes. Or doesn’t.

The United Airlines story about removing a passenger by force did not, as many predicted, die overnight. It remained above the fold all week and we’re running yet another story today. Predictably, the third, fourth or fifth evolutions now have United disowning Republic Airways, which operated the flight under United’s flag. This week, ALPA fired off a press release rightfully deploring the fact that a passenger was treated so poorly, but couldn’t resist a “but it wasn’t us” rejoinder, noting that neither United nor its ALPA-member pilots were involved.

In my view, this is the sort of buck passing that tends to keep the ember of such stories smoldering. My view is that the sooner you own it unconditionally, the sooner you can mend the PR damage. (See Icon, above.) It took United CEO Oscar Munoz four days to get there, but he eventually did and said it should never have happened. Period. And that it won’t again.

In my view, that this story continues to reverberate is emblematic of the frustration people feel in being treated so poorly as customers, and not just by the airlines. Modern business is festooned with scam offers, bait-and-switch pricing and fine-print contracts with hidden charges. The airlines’ usurious $200 change fee is just a visible example.

To sample public opinion on this, I read news columns and blogs until my eyes glazed over. One feature of these was consistent and especially dispiriting. By my rough score keeping, between 10 and 20 percent of people think the passenger deserved the beating he got. In other words, failing to give up his seat was righteously paired with a concussion and a broken nose. I suspect you’ll see a similar percentage in the AVweb poll we’re running this week. Pardon me, but that lack of perspective strikes me as being worse than the event itself. I’d hate to see the punishment these folks would dole out for something serious.

Still, I think United actually has an opportunity here. It consistently rates at the bottom or near the bottom for customer service and this sort of traumatic event can serve as a pivot point to turn things around. Judging by reaction and notes from United employees, they are proud, dedicated people rightfully appalled by what happened on that aircraft. If Munoz is smart—and he’s supposed to be—he’s got a rare opportunity to forthrightly lead in the right direction.

Now we can wait to see if a year makes any difference.

Comments (25)

"So what does it mean? "
It underscores how deeply flawed the Icon idea was about preventing accidents with a sport vehicle. It's a SPORT vehicle for off-airport use. Their idea was as flawed as demanding that people with motorcycle licenses take a special Yamaha riding class even before being able to buy an FJ09 sport bike. The real question is if Icon will learn anything and drop their idea that they know better than everyone else.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | April 16, 2017 9:20 AM    Report this comment

Extreme sports mean that at times things break. It could be the equipment or participant's bones. Over the years working in emergency services I have seen people really make a mess of themselves and or their equipment. Life itself is fraught with perilous ways to damage your equipment and or body. People fall off of horses, fall down stairs, walk into doors, have trucks fall off of jacks, crash motorized and unmotorized vehicles, dive into shallow water etc., etc.

The PR and sales people are always trying to sell the unobtainable or unachievable. Many people buy their products/services believing all the hype. When the laws of nature or physics catch up, these folks are surprised. The press then jumps on the incident as it will draw more, readers, viewers or clicks than a "Pilot Lands Safely After Uneventful Flight" headline.

Paul you are so correct. The best way to avoid negative publicity is to kill the story with the truth. I have learned that a PIO (Public Information Officer) for an emergency event should give a short summary of the facts, the plan going forward and when to expect further information. Above all don't promise what you can not deliver. In these kinds of situations one can not afford to speculate or give opinions. Usually another event comes along and the press moths leave your story to start circling another candle. Then you and your organization are out of the spotlight able to return to doing your normal business.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | April 16, 2017 1:10 PM    Report this comment

Good points Paul. Here are my impressions.

1. ICON Aircraft, considering Trump's NAFTA policies with Mexico and ICON's "1000 job" plant in Tijuana, well ... how do you say, is not a very promising venture. Maybe I'm wrong here.
2. The gyrocopter guy was over enthusiastic. Didn't accomplish - looked foolish to me.
3. United and all other airlines are as legally correct as U.S. segregationists laws were. Can't have this. Can't be living in the past.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 16, 2017 1:59 PM    Report this comment

There is an old saying that perception drives reality. In the case of Icon, they have tried to deliver the perception that their aircraft is essentially crash proof. Unfortunately, reality demonstrated that the perception was wrong. It will be up to them to address the issue, explain what happened and what they plan to do to about it. Time will tell if they succeed.

With regard to United, the perception has indeed driven the issue. A video of a man being dragged, bleeding and dazed off an airplane to a chorus of screaming passengers defies any explanation the airline can offer to justify it. Justified or not, the optics are impossible to defend. They did not help their cause with the slow and ham-fisted manner in which they responded. How they react going forward will determine if they can recover from the fiasco.

Leo is correct: The best way to address both situations is admit the error, promise to fully investigate and ouline what corrective action will be taken. Placing blame or making excuses is a waste of time that only irritates the public further. Johnson & Johnson clearly demonstrated that in 1982 whey the addressed the poisoned Tylenol scare by quick and decisive action. It cost them a bundle, but they saved their valued brand name and thrived as a result. It is interesting to note that other airlines - notably Delta - have already publicly announced new policies to avoid a similar situation. By getting ahead of the story, they hopefully avoid guilt by association. The Icon incident will fade quickly; the United mess not so much. They have a lot of ground to cover, so they had better get started.

Posted by: John McNamee | April 16, 2017 2:27 PM    Report this comment

IF I was in the market for a LSA flying boat -- I'm not -- I'd sure be looking at the Searey v. Icon. At THIS point in its gestation, I see Icon in a similar place to the Cessna SkyCatcher. It's nothing more than a promise that may or may not come to fruition. Searey has been around for a long time, has a factory in the US and has a proven history. For grins, I just looked at the performance numbers and the Searey Elite with 914 wins and costs less. Unless you need to be impressing your buddies by pulling an A5 with your big $$ motorhome to the lake ... and can wait probably forever... I'd buy a Searey.

NOW I'm hearing that the good doctor -- after being forcibly removed from the aircraft -- promptly runs back onto the jet requiring removal of all the PAX. Anyone who thinks HE is not also complicit is living in EmotionalLand. I'm betting the lawyers settle out of court knowing just that.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | April 16, 2017 4:31 PM    Report this comment

As far as anything about Icon is concerned, I don't care. The whole story at this point is a bore.
As far as the United story and the idiot who started this whole mess is concerned, He deserved everything he got. I'm surprised this story continues to have the legs it has. Yes, this incident will have a profound impact industry wide on the way passengers are treated and handled in the future along with rapidly increasing fares. If you want to be treated like a child with all the warm fuzzy's you will pay for it.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 16, 2017 6:55 PM    Report this comment

Thomas,
Funny thing is, you mostly can't choose anything as far as service goes. While the flying public deserves the market they get for buying on a cheapest seat basis, they aren't totally at fault since it's hardly a real market.

It's kind of like the non smoking restaurant option before they started regulating that behavior. There simply was no non smoking restaurant. For whatever reason, they were rare as hen's teeth.

If we got the Feds out of everything beyond the safety aspects, we likely could see real choices develop, but until we do, expect no one to agree on what ought to happen when you pay someone to fly you somewhere.

Was happy to hear a non aviation savvy commentator note how ironic it is that airlines have such problems getting their people from airport to airport. Maybe United needs a few Cessnas?

Posted by: Eric Warren | April 17, 2017 2:50 AM    Report this comment

Idiot or victim/hero? Dr. Dao received what will amount to a very expensive ass-whooping for United and all other airlines. The ante has gone up. Delta now is offering up to $10,000. I'm anticipating more transparency and airline pax rights.

"The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are the primary congressional committees of jurisdiction over airline passenger rights. Congress can authorize or require the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact rules on certain issues, and it can enact requirements for airlines through direct legislation. In specific cases, DOT may take enforcement actions against air carriers that violate consumer protection rules.

Read all about it!


(Understanding) Airline Passenger Rights: The Federal Role in Aviation Consumer Protection
By Rachel Y. Tang, Analyst in Transportation and Industry August 17, 2016


fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43078.pdf

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 17, 2017 5:54 AM    Report this comment

no matter how horrible this doctor was (and the media has had a field day digging up dirt), United's Einstein moment trumps it. Period.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | April 17, 2017 7:41 AM    Report this comment

As Capitan, from as safety of flight standpoint, if a passenger is uncooperative on the ground and won't comply with crew instructions, I don't want him/her on the flight. Midair when compliance counts this passengers non-compliance could endanger all others on board.

Now that the airlines have publicly stated the compensation limits compensating 'volunteers' I won't be 'volunteering' until the $ is near the limit!

Posted by: Geoff Reid | April 17, 2017 11:17 AM    Report this comment

Just as a minor example of why things like this resonate on social media and the public at large, let me give you a tale of two airlines. I booked a flight with Silver Airways a month ago, but had to cancel, within the allowable 24-hour window. The promised refund was supposed to arrive in five business days. A month later, it still hasn't, despite phone calls and e-mails.

They say it will be another week, so five to seek weeks total. This is simply abusive of the customer. There's no reason for it when every other online merchant processes refunds in less than a week, if not two days.

Meanwhile, I had a Southwest flight I needed to change. No fee. Just change it. And while they were at it, they sent me a nice electronic card for my birthday. It was hip, funny and goofy, just like SW. Which is why I'm back to being a loyal customer with them, even though they aren't the cheapest.

And I'm pretty sure no one on the airplane is going to get the crap beat out of them.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2017 12:47 PM    Report this comment

WHAT IF...a major American airline decided to treat its customers as if they were, well, Customers?
WHAT IF...this airline was sought above all others for simply offering a good level of care?
Think of the PR and financial bonanza they would enjoy (let alone the flying public's benefit).
As for the effect of cheap prices, it doesn't take a lot of money to treat your customers with respect.

United needs to start with its CEO which from his slow-to-realize comments doesn't have a clue how to do this.
Oh well, I guess we can dream on...

Posted by: A Richie | April 17, 2017 1:43 PM    Report this comment

Paul wrote: "Modern business is festooned with scam offers, bait-and-switch pricing and fine-print contracts with hidden charges"

Paul you are exactly right, I can remember when major front-line businesses used to never be associated with such tactics; you only found these things with fringe-businesses that operated in dark corners. I started noticing the change with the advent of the cellphone industry, but it has spread far beyond that. Did you know that household-name companies (such as Coca-Cola for example) used to be very picky about which TV shows they advertised on, even going down to objecting to being paired in the same commercial break with a less-than-savory advertiser? Those fairer days are long gone my friend, and you can't expect ethical treatment from anyone these days. Caveat emptor.

Posted by: A Richie | April 17, 2017 1:55 PM    Report this comment

As I noted, United has a real opportunity and so does the rest of the industry. Delta didn't take long to score a point by pledging up to $10K for bumps. Bet they will never have to pay that. I could start writing the TV ad copy now.

Watching the blogosphere on this, some people can't wait until the trial so all the dirty laundry on both sides can be aired. I think the chances of this making it to trial are just about zero and the undisclosed settlement will be in the high seven to low eight-figure range. United needs to get this in the tail lights fast and a trial would do the reverse.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | April 17, 2017 2:53 PM    Report this comment

"even though they aren't the cheapest." BINGO, BINGO, BINGO

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 17, 2017 5:17 PM    Report this comment

No matter the behavior of the hapless doctor, United blew it big time. Munoz did too, and he should have known better. Time to can him, and anyone else at United management, that thinks this is an acceptable way to treat difficult customers. Maybe he needs a lesson or two in customer service from firms that actually practice it (I won't mention any names here, but every MBA class in the world knows who they are). All they had to do was offer another $700 to entice a customer or two off the plane and they would have been golden. Hard to believe this was the only trick in United's bag to deal with this. In any case, I'll fly my pokey old Skyhawk wherever and whenever I can, keep track of my own baggage, engage civilly with any obstreperous passengers, and have a gas the whole time. It's not that hard to do.

Posted by: Edward Engelhard | April 17, 2017 9:09 PM    Report this comment

Dr. Dao's dare has started an Airline Passenger Rights movement with a potential to benefit millions of domestic and international air travelers. It has already iincreased Pax Situational Awareness discouraging airline abuse. The man deserves praise.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 18, 2017 12:37 AM    Report this comment

I gave up trying to follow the story after reading three mutually-contradictory stories of what transpired. A pox on their houses.

The good Doctor needs to learn the lesson that, while you can beat the rap, you can't beat the ride. Struggling against uniformed law enforcement doesn't do you any good.

When United realized it needed spots, it should have taken the same approach that everyone else with an urgent need and a short time window does (in air travel or otherwise): pay up. It doesn't matter how "right" they are about being able to kick someone off an airplane; they screwed up and they can pay for it.

Buying the seats back auction-style is the best and least painful way of solving this problem. If anything needs to be fixed, it's that airlines should be prepared to pay more than $1200 or so per seat, and the compensation to the passenger needs to be cash or a non-expiring true same-as-cash voucher for future purchases--no "blackout dates" or travel restrictions or other nonsense that lets them weasel out of their deal.

Posted by: Robert Gatlin-Martin | April 18, 2017 5:18 AM    Report this comment

United can't seem to catch a break. Story out today of two people on the way to their wedding being booted from a half full flight. Seems a pax was sleeping across all three seats in their assigned row so they moved up a few rows. Unfortunately, this put them in economy plus and they were asked to move back. At this point the stories diverge but United booted them for ostensibly "not following crew instructions." Whether they argued or what is unclear. However, the flight was half full and making them move again seems silly. They were given seats on a flight the next day.

Posted by: BYRON WORK | April 18, 2017 7:37 AM    Report this comment

We used to welcome and celebrate people flying themselves to the White House. In 1911, ie, back when we weren't as sophisticated a people as we are now, Harry Atwood received a medal for doing it. My goodness, if only our ancestors from back then could see how far we've come, wouldn't they be proud?

Posted by: Ken Keen | April 18, 2017 8:31 AM    Report this comment

Too naive to understand ...

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 18, 2017 11:02 AM    Report this comment

"The good Doctor needs to learn the lesson that, while you can beat the rap, you can't beat the ride. Struggling against uniformed law enforcement doesn't do you any good."

That may be so, but submitting to unjustified law enforcement abuse isn't healthy for a society either. It's one thing if it's a clearly aggressive/intoxicated passenger who poses a threat in air, but an entirely different thing to forcefully yank out a paying passenger who otherwise is harmless. One can never tell what may trigger someone's fight (as opposed to flight) response, and sometimes a situation can escalate quickly if neither side is willing to back down. And it's not unreasonable to expect the person who started the escalation (United, as far as I can tell from the news reports) to be the one who should be the first to de-escalate.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 18, 2017 11:20 AM    Report this comment

'That may be so, but submitting to unjustified law enforcement abuse isn't healthy for a society either. '

Actually, the opposite is true. Our social health lies more in our resolve for peace than resistance to perceived injustice. United, the cops, and Dr. Dao all seemed to lack that knowledge, therefore they all simply looked like d%&ks with their selfish behavior.

Like Raf said, however, lots-o-lemonade will be made from this lemon.

Posted by: Dave Miller | April 18, 2017 2:35 PM    Report this comment

There was an airline that treated people more like customers than any other, it was called Continental.

As for the doctor's behavior, NO ONE CARES! The news is that an airline created this situation, and did so for no good reason, and it's finally getting noticed. That's the news. News is when man bites dog. Refusing to comply and getting roughed up for it is dog bites man. It's not news.

I put this in the other blog comments, but no one wants to talk about it. The airports are about four hours apart by car. Why not hire a van? Why not use some piston planes for crew?

I'll tell you why no one wants to talk about this stuff. It's because you might have to check your worldview. The problem is too much regulation. Airlines are NOT about customers because they are full of people who care less about customers than just about anything else or they would have to quit working in such an environment.

Posted by: Eric Warren | April 19, 2017 1:42 AM    Report this comment

The airline business has succumbed to a similar fate as the healthcare business; that is, lack of focus on the customer.

In a highly regulated environment where free-market principles are marginalized, the customer-vendor relationship gets distorted. The irony of this is that regulation is usually applied to life-critical businesses where the consequences are most severe; which is what the regulators were trying to safeguard against in the first place!

Sometimes, you just need to let go of the controls and let the airplane recover...

Posted by: A Richie | April 19, 2017 10:23 AM    Report this comment

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