Overbooking is your fault, not the airlines’
System traffic takes precedence over individual travel
Airlines have zero tolerance for disorderly conduct on aircraft, and they have the law on their side
(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.
No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.
(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.