Mon. December 17
Delta’s Treatment of Wounded Veterans Should Be First Class
Last week I wrote about how the stigma against veterans with invisible injuries is exacerbated by Hollywood portrayals. But what about clearly visible injuries and how they’re treated by large companies? Aboard a Delta flight, Marine Lance Cpl. Christian Brown, a veteran who had been going through physical therapy at Walter Reed for his new prosthetic legs, was carted through the plane and bumped into every seat along the way. When two first-class passengers offered him their seats, the crew refused to help because the plane was getting prepared for departure.
We’re accustomed to companies caring about customers and value those that go out of their way to express that caring. Part of that is wrapped up in the term “corporate social responsibility,” where companies take on a particular cause to demonstrate their commitment to a community. In a classic 2005 Reason symposium, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey criticized Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman for underselling the “humanitarian dimension of capitalism.” Explaining how his company gives 5 percent of its profits to charity, Mackey turns to Adam Smith, father of capitalism:
The Wealth of Nations was a tremendous achievement, but economists would be well served to read Smith’s other great book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he explains that human nature isn’t just about self-interest. It also includes sympathy, empathy, friendship, love, and the desire for social approval. As motives for human behavior, these are at least as important as self-interest. For many people, they are more important.
. . . The business model that Whole Foods has embraced could represent a new form of capitalism, one that more consciously works for the common good instead of depending solely on the “invisible hand” to generate positive results for society. The “brand” of capitalism is in terrible shape throughout the world, and corporations are widely seen as selfish, greedy, and uncaring. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary, and could be changed if businesses and economists widely adopted the business model that I have outlined here.
Returning to the Delta flare-up and breaking down the component parts of this scandal, you can see a ticking time bomb. People already see airlines as the corporate capitalist villains Mackey describes. Trips to the airport are hard enough with security and general traveling stress, but it gets worse for those who are disabled and dislike being dependent on others, let alone stuck in crowded terminals. But since 9/11 (and even before 9/11), airports have felt stifling, dehumanizing. When presented with mistreatment like that faced by Lance Cpl. Brown, passengers saw it as the last straw.
We’re also no longer in an age where such customer relations disasters fall into the memory hole. Your average passenger is a touch more media savvy these days, and outrage can easily be amplified. To these passengers’ credit, Brown’s mistreatment didn’t go unnoticed, having been reported in the Washington Post. By contrast, Delta has neglected its blog, filing its first update in more than two months last week, not about this story, but about forming a partnership with Virgin Atlantic Airways. The Twitter feed is more regularly updated, but mostly with the same tweets about winners of a contest. Their comment to the Washington Post was that they will investigate.
If Delta wants a way out of this mess, it can (and should) create a new program: Allow passengers on flights with wheelchair dependent vets to give up their better seats for them. Those boarding first can be asked (or directed to a sign that asks) if they would like to make the exchange. Sweeten the deal with a reward of a few extra frequent flyer miles or another flight. Delta already allows passengers to donate their extra miles to wounded, injured, and ill military members through the Fisher House Foundation’s Hero Miles program (which partners with other airlines, too, if you’d like to make such a donation). Weirdly, the link from Fisher House to Delta’s charity website is broken, and it’s not easy to find the miles donation page on the Delta website.
Instances like this are examples of how badly companies need to adopt and even cling to Mackey’s concept of social responsibility. If companies want to improve society, they have to consider the lives they’re affecting. That includes our wounded heroes.