Perils of public transport

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, April 11, 2017

How the worm has turned. I’m old enough to remember when public and press alike were as one in their disdain for the disgusting quality of most railroad passenger train service. Nothing has changed except the object of disdain. Now it is the airlines—you could have cut the derision directed toward United Airlines this morning  on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with a dull knife.

The spectacle of Chicago cops bloodily ejecting a gentlemen from his seat (which he had paid for and been issued a boarding pass for and boarded) on a Louisville-bound UAL flight has touched a national nerve. The Chicago Sun-Times, in an savvy display of news judgment, made this its lead story this morning. Hey, and it was all so that a deadheading United crew could travel for free! I’m not sure that Oscar Munoz, the UAL chief executive—who publicly issued an churlish apology for this outrageous behavior by his employees and then privately congratulated his people for following “established procedures for dealing with situations like this”—will keep his job. Moreover, I’m not sure he should.

What happened ought to be an object lesson to my friend who runs Amtrak, Wick Moorman. I’m speaking of the supposedly minor derailment in New York’s Penn Station last week that ended up dominating the headlines of that’s city’s dailies and TV news programs. It appears that the New Jersey Transit train that derailed as it entered the station did serious damage to the complex network of tracks and associated electronics. Yet seemingly, for days no cogent explanation came from Amtrak has to what really happened and why it was taking so long to remedy. There seemed to be, in other words, no accountability. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of passengers stewed and news editors all over Gotham sharpened their knives.

Maybe I missed something, but the Penn Station incident came off to me as a huge public relations disaster. And when I use the phrase “huge public relations disaster” I mean only one thing: The person running the company screwed up, not the PR people. Look, Oscar Munoz and Wick Moorman cannot control everything that every employee does. People use bad judgment, being it in calling the cops to storm an airline cabin and bloody a passenger or covering up the cause of a minor derailment.

What really matters in both instances is public perception. United Air Lines now wears the public-be-damned crown of thorns. Amtrak’s own behavior let it become a football being thrown back and forth by New York and New Jersey politicians. In each instance, UAL and Amtrak appear to deserve what they got. –Fred W. Frailey

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