The politics of airlines and the United backlash

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Washington (CNN)At a time when Americans are increasingly frustrated and historically mistrustful of everything from their government to the media, airlines hold a unique place of contempt.

Tweets complaining about them have become their own genre that everyone from coach passengers to jet-setting celebrities have written, and airline controversies are always prime candidates to go viral (see last month's legging controversy, also on United Airlines).
It should be no surprise, then, that the graphic footage of a man being dragged off a United Airlines flight not only shocked the nation but struck a nerve.
There's a powerlessness in the face of airlines that makes them different from other institutions Americans have soured on. Politicians can be voted out of office, news channels can be turned off. But frequently, to get from Point A to Point B, flying is the only option -- and doing so means playing by their rules.
There's a cost in terms of money (the average domestic round-trip fare was $349 in 2016, per the Bureau of Transportation Statistics), time (the TSA encourages passengers to arrive at the airport two hours before departure) and privacy (remove your shoes and place your laptop in a separate bin, please).
It's also perhaps unsurprising there's been political reaction to the incident.
The response to the statements released by United CEO Oscar Munoz echoed populist criticism "out-of-touch elites" have received for not understanding the middle class, or "the forgotten man," as President Donald Trump campaigned on.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer called the incident "unfortunate" and "troubling," adding that he was "sure" the President has seen the footage.
A conservative Facebook page that posts anti-liberal memes received more than 27 million views for a parody "United Airlines Training Video" that used footage from the film "Airplane."
Some have described the incident as a symptom of the growing income inequality. Paste characterized it as "a product of an indifferent system that increasingly devalues individual life."
And columnist and author Helaine Olen tweeted that "declining customer service is a political canary in the coal mine."