Now that I’ve had a little bit more time to hear more facts, see more (disturbing) video angles, scan dozens of comment sections, and think things through a bit, here are my thoughts on the United fiasco that took place Sunday evening.
Let’s start with the fact that the doctor shares some blame here.
First, I think it’s important to recognize that United likely had the right to deny boarding to this passenger based on the Code of Federal Regulations. United sought volunteers to give up their seats, it didn’t happen, so United moved to its own provisions in its contract of carriage which allows them boot certain passengers based on things like based a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, frequent flyer status, program membership, check-in time, etc.
And very significantly, once the passenger refused to comply, he was interfering with the duties of the crew members.
The FAA § 91.11 states that:
No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.
Thus, by defying demands to deplane, the doctor was in violation of federal law and was just asking for trouble. There’s no denying that. So there was a very poor judgment call made by the doctor (who in my honest opinion should know better) to defy crew member authority on airplane.
With that said, it really doesn’t make United’s situation any less appalling.
The reason I say that is that it seems that United has shown a high level of indifference for its passengers in this case, both while the events took place and in their statements that followed.
As I wrote yesterday, United absolutely dropped the ball by allowing passengers to board the plane and then trying to sort out their mess of a situation while passengers were already in their seats, probably strapped in with their seat belts. One can only wonder how United didn’t realize they needed four seats for their employees until after passengers had taken their seats. Given that fact, I think it’s clear that there were some unexpected logistical failures occurring at the time.
At that point, United should have made it a priority to use an extra level of due care to handle the situation. It’s one thing to be involuntarily denied boarding while waiting at the gate and quite another to be plucked out of your seat all because United couldn’t get their own s**t together.
So there was a real technical failure by United that launched this whole fiasco into motion.
The next issue is that United showed that it doesn’t know how to treat its customers appropriately, at least not in my opinion. United made offerings of $400 and $800 (and according to their CEO $1,000) to the passengers to volunteer to take a flight the next day but nobody felt those prices were high enough. In other words, the market spoke and told United that’s not quite good enough.
Customers are forced to pay market rate to the airlines for last minute seats so why doesn’t it work the other way?
At that point, United should’ve employed a policy or procedure to remedy that market imbalance so that it never got to the point of having to forcibly remove a passenger. Whether this was offering more money, more perks, or just having a skilled negotiator/problem solver on staff, I believe that the appropriate response should have been to offer equitable consideration that paying customers felt was a worthy bargain. (Again, we’re talking about passengers already seated on the plane.)
Instead, United deemed that it would resort to using a computer to randomly select passengers who would have to deplane and that would be the end of it. If passengers felt this was unjustified or that they weren’t being fairly compensated, it wouldn’t matter because United could call the police and have them forcefully removed if they wanted to.
I could maybe understand United involving the police if they had offered exorbitant sums of cash that nobody was jumping on, but United was barely even scratching the surface of the statutory maximum allowed for compensation ($1,350).
The focus then shifts to the act of the police. I’m very pro-police and think they have one of the hardest jobs in the world, but I think it’s well apparent that we’ve got a problem in our country with officers using excessive force.
In this case, this older man is manhandled, face smashed into an armrest, and then drug like a rag doll through the aisle of the plane. While I understand that some level of force will almost always be necessary to remove someone from a plane, this was just excessive. It seemed like this level of force is more suited for a belligerent or threatening passenger, which does not seem to be the case here.
So United then goes offer and send out a few statements:
“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.”
From their CEO, Oscar Munoz:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
Then came the publication of a letter from the CEO to United employees. It reads in part:
Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clear picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.
As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed stablished procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go and above and beyond to ensure we fly right.
I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.
His recap states the following events:
On Sunday, April 9, after United Express Flight 3411 was fully boarded, United’s gate agent were approached by crew members that were told they needed to board the flight.
We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions.
He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.
Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist – running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials
All of these statements show a lack of understanding by United that they played a role in the injuries sustained by the doctor that was highly disturbing to the public. There’s no owning up to United’s failures to properly handle the overbooking situation and only what feels like a superficial apology about the fact that the overbooking process took place. It doesn’t seem like they’re ready to accept that they have a large problem on their hands of showing disregard and indifference to their customers and that something will be be done to address it.
As an attorney, I understand a corporation needs to avoid admissions of guilt. But there are still ways to let the public know that you are acknowledging that a customer was treated in a very troubling manner and that you’re actively working to remedy the situation, especially when such a disturbing level of force was used. That hasn’t happened here.
So while I think multiple parties share the blame here, United’s failings are amplified by its attempts to downplay the situation and failure to address its own shortcomings along with those of the law enforcement officers involved (that they called in in the first place).
Cover photo by Anna Zvereva.