What United Airlines Can Teach Us About Maintaining Relationships

With bloodied mouth, glasses askew and belly exposed for the world’s social media scrutiny, United Express Flight 3411 passenger, Dr. David Dao, was brutally ousted from the overbooked flight. The incident occurred April 8, 2017 and shocked viewers around the world. United Airlines initially defended their legal right to remove passengers on overbooked flights, and claimed Dr. Dao belligerently refused to give up his seat.

Like many, my husband and I watched the drama unfold on the evening news. My husband was stung immediately by the obvious – United Airlines doesn’t give a whiff of roses about people. And my husband expanded that observation to include all US commercial airlines and their relationships with people. He knows. He’s worked in the aviation industry since 1994 and has felt as battered as Dr. Dao.

My husband was on duty in maintenance control at a major American international airport the day two planes slammed into the NYC Twin Towers. He listened first-hand to radio correspondence to the other two planes involved with terrorist attacks on 9/11. What we all witnessed in response to that day were massive changes to airport security. What my husband experienced in short order was a cut in pay. At the time we took it in stride, thinking we were all making sacrifices to ensure passenger and employee security.

But security, like the phrase “law and order” can mask other intentions.

Ultimately, the US government assisted major airlines in their financial losses. Overbooking was always a part of airlines’ policies, but after 9/11 airlines began to reduce flights. This created an increase in the actual number of overbooked flights. While customers began to feel the lessening of service, employees were treated no better. Various aviation unions fought back, but airlines began processes of mergers and bankruptcies. Many unions folded.

My husband’s airline used bankruptcy court to break union pay agreements, further reducing what he earned. Yet, the day after emerging from bankruptcy, top management received bonuses. Two years later the company merged and demanded its employees move or lose their jobs. Many, including my husband, lost their full-time careers. After the bailouts, bankruptcies and mergers,  many airlines began to hire their workforce as contractors because they don’t have to pay union wages or provide benefits, including healthcare. They can also lay off contractors when work slows or passenger loads lighten without repercussions. The stress this causes contract employees is immense.

My husband once had a good paying job, one that reflected the level of education, experience and ability to meet and maintain Federal licensing required for safety. Yet while companies like United Airlines continue to turn big profits, industry employees suffer, and so do customers.

What the world saw of an airline so callus as to place profits before human dignity came as no surprise to me and my husband. He watched the screen as Dr. Dao squealed in protest, moaning with a battered face and felt the despair of his own treatment by the airlines as an employee. The opinions on US airlines are wholly mine, but rooted in experience. I’ve watched my husband suffer because upper management cares more about image and achievement in the form of profits. If the airline corporations were indeed persons, they’d be exhibiting narcissistic personality disorder.

Yet, the purpose of exploring what ails the airlines is to use their bad behavior as an analogy for dealing with life stressors in relationships. Many have felt more stress than usual, citing 2016 as the year history won’t want to talk about and 2017 is shaping up to be as stressful. Stress impacts relationships. What I’ve learned from dealing with the airlines and the stress it has placed on my marriage is that when we put people first, we all benefit. I hope the airlines can pay attention and improve how they maintain relationships, too.

No one should suffer in a relationship. It doesn’t matter what the stress is, or how stressed out you are, if either of you end up with a bloodied mouth, get out. There were times my husband and I yelled in utter frustration because of what was happening to us beyond our control. Never did it escalate to blood loss. United Airlines was methodical in how it carried out its policy, using the law and blaming the victim. They remained in control of the outcome. We can undo hurt feelings, but we can’t undo broken teeth. This is not a relationship. United Airlines clearly has no relationship with its customers, and that’s exactly the kind of suffering to avoid. Always. Pick a better partner. Fly a different airline.

Disengage before the stress escalates. When my husband and I are trying to work out an impossible situation and we are both feeling our emotions rise, we agree to disengage. The word is a diffuser. All I say is, “I need to disengage.” It’s a time-out. Had United Airlines taken a time-out, they might have deescalated the situation. I recognize when my husband is worked up. I recognize when I am. We might feel the need to resolve the issue at hand, just like United Airlines felt it had to avoid further delay of its flight, but it can be addressed after everyone involved has had time to calm down.

Breathe, move or crack a joke. There’s many meditation apps available for your smart phone. Download one and use the breathing meditation when you need to disengage. I like one called Calm. This is often a good time to pray, if you are a believer of your faith. You can go for a walk, hop on your bicycle or, if you are in an office or on a plane, stretch in your seat, wiggle your toes and fingers. While the airlines might be inconsiderate companies, most are populated with good people who are pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. I’ve been on many flights where the pilot or attendants have used humor to distract from stressful situations. My husband and I do this, too. Use humor if it’s a bond you share in your relationship.

Own your attitude. We’ve all heard the definition of insanity, right? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. You can use your attitude as your compass to choose how you react. You can’t pick your stressors, and you can’t make the stress disappear, but you can control how you respond. You can’t control your partner’s response, but you can develop an aware attitude instead of a reactive one. United Airlines claimed Dr. Dao was belligerent, but failed to check their own attitude in how they handled the situation. Someone has to take that deep breath, disengage and choose to react differently. Escalation is insanity.

Don’t overbook your life. We all can understand the desire that drives profits, but when airlines care more about profit than people, their practice of overbooking becomes negligence. Sometimes my husband resents the time I spend in front of a computer screen. And he’s absolutely right. My desire to write, connect and publish can be intense. I practice flexibility so that I have time to focus on us without being overbooked week after week. United Airlines and others practice overbooking because they anticipate “no shows,” people who miss their scheduled flights. Why don’t they work on incentives to get people to show up? The same for a relationship. When my husband knows I’m going to give him time, he lets me focus on my work.

Make your apologies real. Many feel that the apology from United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, was staged PR. When you do have to make an apology, make it real. Understand what happened, your role, and work to disengage next time by going for a walk or managing your own attitude. Make time for stress-free moments even during stressful times. Watch a movie together, hold hands, say something supportive, read aloud to one another. And apologize because you want to maintain a good relationship. I hope United Airlines decides to make changes that do put people first. Then we might believe the public apology.

Through the ups and downs of life, through the minefields of stress, through a difficult career in aviation, my husband and I can respond to the media outrage of United Airlines, understanding that it takes constant maintenance to make a relationship work. We may not think the airlines make for friendly skies, but we believe in the friendship between us. We invest in our love and take responsibility for good maintenance. So far, we’ve been flying high for 30 years so we must be maneuvering the turbulence of stress in a good way. United Airlines needs relationship modification to better understand that its profits come from people.


Charli Mills is a born buckaroo, wrangling words and creating a literary community at following a 20+ year career in freelancing and marketing communications. Charli Mills brings a fresh voice to the western genre, writing fiction about frontier places and its pioneer women and underdogs who are often marginalized by history. She has extensive relationship experience based on a 30-year marriage to a veteran spouse. Together they face the challenges of PTSD and living without a home. 

What United Airlines can teach us about managing our relationships
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  1. Whatever issues United has dealing with people on its flights, they’re a sight worse dealing with behind the scenes. Moreover, they appear to only do business with others who are difficult. Very frustrating.

    1. Thanks for adding your insights, Heather. I think the airlines in general have not been held accountable for how they do business, treating customers, contractors and employees poorly.

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