United Airlines and its Dragged-Off Passenger

While the #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos meme is getting some traction on Twitter (and I’ve contributed my share as well), I’d like to add a few thoughts about the recent incident with a gentleman being removed forcibly from a United Airlines flight. My perspective is that of a long-time airline traveler and a family member of half a dozen people who all used to work in the airline industry at one time or another.

Overbooking is your fault, not the airlines’

Airlines, like hotels, overbook because people–the traveling public–are not reliable and cancel all the time. “Oh,” you say, “my one little cancellation wouldn’t force a major corporation to overbook a flight 10 seats!” But consider that there might be upwards of 200 people on your flight. You think you’re the only person whose kid gets sick or boss cancels their business trip?
Most of the time, overbooking is reasonable and the number of overbooked seats is resolved through natural attrition between the time the flight is put on the schedule and the time it actually leaves the gate six months later. If it is still overbooked come departure day, the airlines offer to book passengers on a later flight and provide coupons/vouchers toward another flight in the future. The values of those coupons can range anywhere from $100 to $800 or more, depending on the value of the flight you’re being bumped from, and if you don’t have to be at a specific destination at a specific time and have a little patience, they’re not a bad deal. I’ve taken the vouchers a couple of times and ended up returning to the airline at a later date because I basically had a free ticket to look forward to.
For reasons that elude me, every single person on a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, felt that they absolutely had to get to their destination on time, on that day, and no amount of service recovery/compensation was going to sway them. When the airline gets no volunteers for the carrot, they have to resort to the stick and bump some passengers to make room for crew members who must serve 200-2,000 other passengers after this particular flight.

System traffic takes precedence over individual travel

I have had flights (or family members’) flights delayed or canceled because there were no crews available to fly the planes. The unfortunate reality is that airlines sometimes have to “deadhead” (internal term) pilots through the system to make sure everything and everyone works as planned. If Crew X doesn’t get where they need to be, that could result in anywhere from one to ten flights being canceled.
Mr. Spock had a phrase for this in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

Airlines have zero tolerance for disorderly conduct on aircraft, and they have the law on their side

Since nearly the beginning of widespread commercial air travel (~1930), airlines  have operated according to a naval tradition of command of a vessel: meaning, in essence, the Captain has final, unchallenged authority over his/her craft, the crew, and passengers. Any crew or passengers must obey his (or her or their) orders when instructed to do so. Failure to do so could result in restraint or removal from the vehicle. Unresponsive passengers are not cast overboard sans life jacket/parachute, but they are flown back to the point of origin or the nearest city’s airport, put off the plane, and often arrested.
Below are the relevant FAA regulations.

§91.3   Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.

(a) The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

§91.11   Prohibition on interference with crewmembers.

No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.

§91.517   Passenger information.

(e) Each passenger shall comply with instructions given him or her by crewmembers regarding compliance with paragraphs (b), (c), and (d) of this section.

These are all straightforward, but the general public doesn’t give these unspoken, but undeniable facts of life on commercial airliners. We only notice them when captains act in captain-ish manner and exercise the authority given them under regulation (if not law) to deal with a hostile passenger. How many times have you heard in the news about planes landing somewhere besides their intended destination because of an unruly passenger?

As usual, the video of the passenger being carried off the plane is prominent and makes for great optics for anyone who hates airlines, air travel, or big corporations. We have not seen (to my knowledge) any video of how the passenger behaved prior to the police coming on board and zapping him with a taser. Maybe he was politely arguing, maybe he raised his voice a little, maybe he raised his voice a lot. However, air crews take 91.3 and 91.11 very seriously because ornery passengers can put lives in danger. This was true decades before September 11, 2001, and flight crews have been especially vigilant since then.

Here are some statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to put things in perspective:

  • IATA collected 49,084 reports from airlines concerning unruly passengers between 2007 and 2015
  • In 2015, the rate was one incident for every 1,205 flights (2014: 1 incident for every 1,282 flights)
  • The majority of reports are Level 1 incidents which are verbal in nature and can usually be dealt with to a successful conclusion by crew using de-escalation training
  • 11% of reports relate to level 2 incidents which involve physical aggression to others or damage to the aircraft
  • Intoxication from alcohol or drugs was identified in 23% of reported cases
  • IATA’s statistics do not cover all airlines around the world, so are likely to significantly underestimate the true extent of the problem

Unruly passenger incidents include violence against crew and other passengers, harassment, verbal abuse, smoking, failure to follow safety instructions and other forms of riotous behavior. Although such acts are committed by a tiny minority of passengers, they can create inconvenience, threaten the safety and security of other passengers and crew, and lead to significant operational disruption and costs for airlines.

So yes, if you’re not a regular airline traveler, are not prone to disruptive behavior, and regularly comply with crew instructions on aircraft, the situation on United might seem unseemly, horrific, or terrifying. And since few to none of us have seen what happened before he was literally dragged off the plane, it’s very easy to have a visceral, arm-chair-analyst reaction to this situation. However, now that the “news” is out there, perhaps it’s time to think like a judge or jury, keep the standing rules of air travel in mind, and wait to hear all of the evidence before seeking to destroy United, its employees, or any officers associated with the event.

Additional input, 3:19 p.m. Eastern Time

A friend pointed me to United Airlines’ policies regarding compensation for denied boarding due to oversold flights, and they are extensive. See also Section 21 regarding the circumstances under which United will deny a passenger transport. Unfortunately, as with many things in life, people don’t learn the rules until they break them.

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