How I Got the United Situation Wrong Yesterday

Apr 11, 2017

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Yesterday morning, I got into the office and saw the shocking video that most of you have seen by now, which showed a passenger getting dragged off a United Airlines flight. Immediately, we started working on the story and trying to get the facts. Initially when you see footage like this you want to rush to judgement and say “how horrible,” but being a seasoned traveler, I wanted to go a step further and see what really happened.

I fly on airplanes multiple times a week and I’ve never seen anything remotely close to this, so my first instinct was that the passenger did something wrong. That may be a bad way to think, but when you fly a lot, you realize that even though there are surly airline employees, there are A LOT of belligerent people on airplanes who seem to lose all awareness the second they walk on a metal tube. So, I may be biased by my experiences seeing passengers behaving badly, so I take responsibility for that.

After that, word was that the plane was overbooked, which I took for fact and from that point on, I used the law (or lack of law) to guide the situation — did United follow the proper protocol and ask for volunteers? Yes. Was the amount in line? Yes. (But in hindsight, to avoid the situation that ensued, the price should have kept increasing until there were volunteers — surely there would have been volunteers if the price was right.)

So, a United manager randomly selected four volunteers who would be bumped from the flight. Two of them complied and two did not want to — a doctor and his wife. I don’t know how long the United gate agents tried to remedy the situation, but they called airport security and then he was physically dragged off the plane.

My initial reaction is that when police or the captain ask you to get off a plane, you should comply. As a rule of thumb, I think that is good advice. But when I responded to this particular situation the way I did, where I didn’t know the complete facts, that was a mistake — and I apologize for that.

I got it wrong, and for these reasons:

  1. This wasn’t a traditional overbooking situation. According to the information we have, the flight was not oversold — United wanted to get its employees to Louisville to staff another flight. While it was in United’s best business interest to get them there, passengers should not be held accountable for the airline’s lack of planning. Frankly, Chicago is a United hub, and if it really needed to get employees to Louisville, it could have flown an extra plane to get them there.
  2. This wasn’t a denied boarding. The passenger already boarded and was in a seat that he paid for. United’s Contract of Carriage dictates when a passenger can be refused transport, and nowhere does it state that United can de-board you because it wants to fly its own employees. I bet United will try to say that the passenger didn’t comply with crew member instructions, but that is bogus — why even have rules if a flight attendant can decide, without cause, to kick anyone off the plane? I can see this passenger’s mindset that he had to get home and did not violate the Contract of Carriage, so he shouldn’t have to get off.
  3. This was inhumane treatment. Period. According to witnesses, he hit his head on the armrest and was then brutally dragged off the plane. Even if he hadn’t hit his head, why would you want to drag him off the plane? Shouldn’t medical personnel have been called to assist at that point? Not only that, but after he was escorted off (then presumably a security and health threat) he somehow got back on the plane — bleeding! That clearly is a poor security and medical response to allow the passenger to get back on the plane. According to reports, at least one of the officers has been placed on leave.

As travelers, we need answers and assurances that situations like this won’t happen again. Passengers should be placed before profits, and United needs to answer to this to ensure that this situation never occurs again. Sadly, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz’ letter to employees basically blamed the victim, which is a huge mistake in my opinion.

To be clear, before judging another situation like this I will try to look through as many lenses as possible. I won’t always make the right calls, but I will listen, and in this case I agree with so many of you that this situation is not as black and white as agreeing with a police officer asking you to get off the plane.

Clearly, the blame here is on United because it could have done any number of things to avoid this situation — like offering more compensation, sending its employees via another plane, airline or even limousine (not our problem to worry about its employee logistics). I also think the culture of having airport police handling customer service issues (like an overbooking) is out of control, and clearly the security officers were incompetent and excessive in their use of force for a passenger that did nothing wrong but simply sit in a seat that he paid for.

We need to stop the culture of being worthless when flying. Can you imagine this happening at a hotel? You’re in your room that you paid for and they open the door and ask you to leave because a visiting sales executive with the chain needs the room? And if you refuse, cops come and drag you out? It’s ludicrous and wouldn’t happen in any other industry — why do we think it should happen on an airplane? There’s a tweet going around that “United puts the hospital in hospitality,” which is pretty ironic since the airline’s motto is “Fly the Friendly Skies.”

The bottom line is that we need more compassion in travel and that goes both ways. I feel for front line airline employees who are berated on a daily basis by consumers who don’t know the rules, and likewise, I feel bad especially for infrequent travelers who assume the niceties of the real world apply to air travel. In short, they don’t, and it takes a while to learn how to travel and maintain your dignity (and it’s getting even harder in the back of the plane where people are getting jammed in like never before and simple things like seat assignments and overhead bin space are luxuries for those who can afford them). I do believe there will be a silver lining to this experience and that airlines will start putting passengers over profit, and in doing so will realize that that profit will increase when customers are treated well. Sadly, it might take a situation like this and a strong boycott to send that message, but the power of the consumer can be even more effective than the power of legislation.

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