Well, traveling by plane has really become an air sickness bag full of fun, lately, hasn’t it?
If you happen to have been anywhere in the world that just happens to have Internet access in the past 72 hours or so, you probably saw disturbing footage of airport security forces forcefully dragging an elderly doctor off an overbooked plane, bloodying his face and horrifying fellow passengers in the process.
It bears mentioning this man was not engaged in any sort of terrorist activities. In fact, he hasn’t even a stowaway, like some hobo from years past hopping aboard an open freight car and riding the rails from town to town. This was a man who had paid for his ticket in full and just wanted to get home to his patients. When United — which had purposely overbooked the flight — wanted him to leave and he refused to accept their offer of a later flight and reimbursement, they did what they deemed necessary — which included roughing him up and literally dragging him off the plane.
It also bears mentioning that United was within its rights to do every single thing they did Monday.
Airlines are, legally, allowed to overbook flights — and pretty much all of them take advantage of this every chance they get. The reasoning is that passengers regularly don’t show up for flights and, rather than send a plane into the air with an empty seat or two (gasp, the horror), they will fill the plane with the others who have purchased tickets on the oversold flight. On flights in which all the passengers who purchased tickets actually show up, they are allowed to “bump” people who have purchased tickets, provided they provide tickets on a different flight and some sort of compensation.
This actually happens pretty frequently, often without incident. Some passengers actually volunteer to get bumped off a flight, as the compensation regularly amounts to hundreds of dollars.
That was not the case on the United flight in question. There were no volunteers willing to give up their seats — in particular, a doctor who was anxious to get back to keep appointments with his patients. Also, he wasn’t asked to give up his seat to a fellow passenger who also had purchased a ticket — he was one of four randomly selected passengers asked to give up his or her seat in order to let United employees on the plane to connect to their next destination.
So, it would appear, United using its airplane to transport employees — and forcing paying customers off the plane — is worth beating down a 69-year-old man. This somehow makes sense?
Granted, the doctor in question was asked politely several times to leave the plane and he was offered compensation for his troubles. When he wasn’t interested in that, he was removed by force. And yes, airline security was legally within its rights to use force to remove him from the plane — but just because you are allowed to do something, does that mean you actually should?
There was no better way of resolving this situation? Really? They couldn’t have upped the amount of money they were offering in compensation in hopes of finding four volunteers willing to give up their seats? They had to leave an old man bleeding from the mouth?
Once faced with his company’s actions — thankfully, we live in a world in which these senseless acts of violence can be documented, otherwise who knows how far things would have gone — United’s CEO, Oscar Munez, first essentially issued a “non-apology apology,” discussing the need to sometimes “reaccomodate” passengers (apparently, a code-word for busting someone in the mouth” then followed up with an internal memo in which he essentially blamed the passenger himself for being “belligerent and disruptive.”
My children are sometimes belligerent and disruptive. I’ve never once tried to knock their teeth down their throats. This was little more than a lame attempt by Munez to draw heat away from his company. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear to be working, as United’s stock dropped by roughly $600 million the first day after the video went viral.
Unfortunately, the company likely will recover — mostly because it’s too big to fail over a singular incident. That, in essence is a big part of the problem with air travel these days. It’s mostly run by a few titan companies who, quite simply, don’t put customer service first (or second, or third or fourth, as near as I can tell) because their bank accounts tell them they don’t have to. So long as the bulk of the industry is controlled by a few of the rich and powerful, they will continue to treat most of their customers with about the same respect and care with which they treat their luggage.
All of which was frustrating enough when they began canceling amenities like meals and in-flight movies — replacing them with stale peanuts and fees for extra luggage — but when it starts putting the health and safety of passengers at risk, that’s another thing entirely.
I think I’ll drive, thank you.
Troy’s very own David Fong appears on Thursdays in the Troy Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong