maybe I’ll just rent a car instead

A decade ago when I was working at the Alley Theatre, we sponsored a breakfast event for our corporate donors. Larry Kellner, then-CEO of Houston-based Continental Airlines, was the speaker. The company’s slogan was “Work hard, fly right,” and Continental was being awarded a number of honors, including Most Admired Global Airline and Most Admired U.S. Airline by Fortune magazine.

Kellner told the inspiring story of how Continental turned around mediocre performance and rose to the top of a competitive market through employee incentives. Employees were rewarded when planes left on time, bags made it to their destination and customers were happy. So instead of just one white dude at the top of the food chain grabbing all the money, employees across the organization had incentive to work together and do a great job. Which they did.

It was a pretty simple formula: Honor your obligations, and satisfy your customers.

Then things changed. And not just in the airline industry.

The story that broke yesterday about the doctor being manhandled and dragged off a United flight (R.I.P. Continental) spread like wildfire–and is still burning. There’s the disturbing video shot by a fellow passenger, which makes the situation more “real” than if this had been an anecdote shared by a couple of people on Twitter. But it’s more than that. Disturbing videos get passed around on social media all day, every day.

What many people are reacting to is the naked display of how much corporations are in charge and what little concern they have for their customers. We the people haven’t been in control for a long time, but now it’s becoming less of a secret that’s chuckled about in boardrooms and more of a, “If you don’t eat this poopoo ‘voluntarily,’ we’ll force it down your throat.”

Just check out the United CEO’s tone-deaf response. He started with some Newspeak (changing “bloodying and dragging a passenger by his wrists” to “re-accommodating” the passenger) and has since begun victim blaming. There’s even a story making the rounds now about some misdeeds in the doctor’s past. As if something he did in 2004 excuses his treatment yesterday.

This is what deregulation and monopolies are buying us. Getting dragged, half-conscious and bloody, down the narrow aisle of an airplane while our shirts ride up and our pasts get mined for embarrassing information.

Guess I need to start doing some work on my flabby core muscles.

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