Saturday, April 22, 2017

United Airlines and "The System"


I have long said, yes, it is I who have long said, at length, at long length, with bolding and italics, with passion and fervor, I have long said – yes, it can be “the system,” but it's also the people in the system who screw things up, who screw other people, who put themselves first, who are very stupid, who are useless and worse, and who just don't give a shit. It's the bureaucrats, not just the bureaucracy.

I saw this in my first real job in the US Public Health Service, in the bowels of the bureaucracy, in Arlington, Virginia, and then in Rockville, Maryland. I saw people, public officials, bureaucrats, who somehow got hired, couldn't be fired, and couldn't do anything useful. The ordinary and the subordinary have to go somewhere, and in the bowels of the bureaucracy I saw a lot of them.

So, “the system” is getting blamed for United Airlines. Yes, the system has something to do with it. The system apparently calls for United employees to be favored over paying customers. It was the boss, poor Oscar Munoz who had a heart transplant last year and unaccountably came back to work, I guess because he was dedicated to his work, who blamed the system for the brutal passenger removal by Chicago police. Really? They called the Chicago airport police – this must be a branch of the fabled Chicago police – for a police action in removing a passenger???? Can that be true?

And then Munoz blamed the system, and pledged that there would be no firings? Really? His first concern was his standing with the United personnel. This must bespeak the difficulty he has had in reforming the infamously poorly passenger serving United personnel.

I have a good friend, Paul Levy, who used to run the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, who stoutly adheres to the “blame the system and not the person” routine, and with whom I routinely disagree. He says a nurse makes an error, the head nurse calls the nurse into the office, asks if she meant to make the error, the miscreant nurse says no she didn't, the head nurse then says, it must have been the system then, and I will take the blame. As I say, I routinely disagree. Yes, systems can be bad and often are. The two vials of adrenaline with different concentrations of the drug can look almost identical and be stored side by side, placed in that error-prone position by some idiot who designed the stupid system, and the system not corrected by a bureaucracy of nurses and the order-takers who work there, so the error by the nurse in grabbing the wrong vial can be understandable. Amazon routinely stores similar items far apart so they will not be confused, but then they are a company ambitious to do things right. But, most often, the nurse makes a contributory error because after all, hundreds of times before the incident in question, nurses have navigated the system correctly. So I say, place responsibility where it is due, and the net can be wide, but blaming “the system” is just abrogating the duty of being responsible.

And lots of times, as in the Chicago Airport Police-United Airlines combined fiasco, the people in question are much more directly blamable. Chicago Police and unnecessary violence – doesn't that ring a bell? United Airlines and uncaring idiocy – another bell rung, no? Two immovable bureaucracies and cultures.

And more blame can go to the system – the monopolies that exist, allowed personally by bureaucrats and paid-off legislators and other officials, so that UAL persists no matter what happens – what are you going to do, take a bike to the next city?

So, here is an article who calls it like it is, and then an exceprt from the article, from the Fiscal Times.

It was the system! The “system” – rather than an employee – decided to give a higher priority to United staff rather than paying customers. The “system” didn’t think to offer a higher incentive for volunteers, either. The “system” called the police rather than a United employee, or maybe the “system” made the employee sic airport police on their customer. Munoz’ response seems to suggest that the “system” is so all-powerful that even the CEO bears no responsibility for it.

When those in responsible positions want to avoid accountability, they blame “the system” rather than the people who misuse and abuse their authority.”

Systems might be to blame, and those who set them up need to be held responsible, too, not just the boob who pulled the wrong switch, or worse, who filed a faked safety reports (PGE, our old friend.) Here at UAL, I figure firing is probably enough. Culture is carried by lots of bad apples, and in many bureaucracies the bad outnumber the good.

Personal responsibility is the key. Corporate officers need to face the possibility of fines and jail time, personally. Public officials, too, need to face personal consequences. Today, the paper says that Munoz will no longer be considered to rise to Chairman of the Board at UAL. Poor guy, he made a lot of missteps. But somewhere below him is a culture of rot, protected by monopoly and workers combined for their own welfare and not that of the public they should serve, but don't. United sucks.

End of rant. For a while, anyway.

Budd Shenkin

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