United we stand, overbooked we fall | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 21, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, April 21, 2017

United we stand, overbooked we fall

My show hosts in Dallas, Texas treat me to a sumptuous biryani dinner. Being a wise man with an early morning flight the following day to San Diego, California, I decide to take a doggie bag. After all, it will be a cost effective lifesaver for the three-hour flight where I have to pay an arm (with no arm rest) and a leg (with no leg room) for everything from a sandwich to water, pillow, blanket, movie, hell, perhaps even the seatbelt and oxygen.

Before boarding my flight, I walk into an airport eatery, otherwise known as aviation highway robbers, charging USD 15 for a small bottle of water. I buy nothing, and ask the server, to her utter disbelief, to warm up my Styrofoam container of kachchi biryani. To add to her shock, I ask her, “Ma'am, could you please give me a plastic fork and a knife, strong ones please?” Even these utensils on board would cost more than a Monno Ceramic bone china dinner set.

Thirty minutes into the flight, the scalpers, er, flight attendants come down the aisle, pimping pathetic dry bagel sandwiches available for purchase for a small fortune. A culinary delight nevertheless, when imprisoned inside a steel tube at 35,000 feet.

Meanwhile, I take out my Styrofoam container. I slowly open the lid, emitting an aroma that mesmerises 150 starving passengers and crew members into salivating like the Pavlov canine. And mind it, this is 'bashi' biryani, a good 24 hours old, the eastern version of aging with grace, and heated up by the disbelieving server just a half hour ago.

A Southern man couldn't resist saying, “That sure smells, looks and I bet tastes good.”

“Yes, and I'll give you half of it for a hundred bucks.” I joke, but I could as well have been half as serious for a fast buck and still half a sumptuous meal.

I am a smart traveller. And thus I make sure I also fly domestic in the US on December 24, the day when USA becomes the aviation equivalent of Gabtoli and Saidabad on 29th Ramadan. As my wife and I board our flight, the announcement goes that they are looking for volunteers to give up their seats in return for USD 500 of travel vouchers. We ain't spending no Christmas, so we both give up our seats, thus making a quick USD 1,000 in flight vouchers to be redeemed on any future flight on this airline. We are booked on to the next flight an hour later where we volunteer to be bumped off again. We do this for a total of five times before being given a hotel room and boarding passes for the first flight the following morning. No worries, this is almost our honeymoon, with hotel and meals on the house (airline) and a total of USD 10,000 of flight vouchers, enough to carry us and our extended families around the world several times over.

You see, airlines oversell their tickets while factoring in people not showing up. But all DO show up on Christmas Eve. But the concept is novel, selling the same seat twice. I wonder what mayhem would ensue should this happen on a long haul coach at Saidabad. Even worse, the airline has the right to eject any passenger should it need to, as it happened during a recent United Airlines flight from Chicago, Illinois to Louisville, Kentucky where four United staff had to be accommodated while four paid passengers were ejected. Ok, for a 'handsome' voucher of USD 500. One doctor refused, ending up being dragged out of the plane with a bloodied nose while being unconscious.

The video of the incident goes viral. The CEO of United goes official: “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.” While he gets torched for the use of the euphemism 're-accommodate', I think he is familiar with the term being not so uncommon in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I guess this is Trump's America – 'America First, Paying Passengers Second'.

The four United employees, who could easily have driven to Louisville in four hours, eventually board the plane. They are boo-ed by other passengers.

Our airlines may be late or they may leak, but I can vouch something like this would never happen and in the unlikely event that it does, the fellow passengers, who only a minute ago were fighting among each other over overhead cabin space, would do a lot more than just boo and someone else, instead of the passenger, would probably be dragged off the plane.

United Airlines perhaps needs to learn of Bangladesh's 'seating service' and 'gate lock service', the former to ensure all passengers get to simply fly to the destination printed on their boarding passes and the latter to keep off last minute airline employees from kicking out paying passengers.

The writer is an engineer at Ford & Qualcomm USA and CEO of IBM & Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh turned comedian (by choice), the host of ATN Bangla's The Naveed Mahbub Show and ABC Radio's Good Morning Bangladesh, the founder of Naveed's Comedy Club.

E-mail: naveed@naveedmahbub.com

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