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United: Don’t Blame the Rules, Blame the Ruler

The video of a United Airlines passenger being dragged out of an aircraft after refusing to give up his seat to United Airlines staff, on an overbooked flight, raises troubling questions about the “by the rules” mentality of the aviation industry in the U.S. and beyond.

Commercial aviation requires working with the public, caring for the public, and ensuring the health and well being of passengers who have paid for their tickets to fly.

That airlines are allowed to overbook, and that they are allowed by law to remove passengers during incidents of overbooking, is irrelevant.

We are not looking at a common situation of overbooking here.

What we are seeing is an unconscionable abuse of power by those who have a little bit of it against those who have none.

This is a common enough problem. Those with a little bit of power can become nightmares in their exercising of it. The only thing that checks the abuse of power by people with little sense is a strong focus on ethics and a prioritisation of the golden rule: do onto others as you would have them do onto you.

I see a lot of pontificating and searching for excuses in the conversation surrounding this incident; lots of references to existing policies.

It is disheartening to think that the industry can run itself in circles while refusing to face the evident damage done in this case.

What should United have done when the passenger refused to board per the rules, etc.?

That’s the wrong question. The right questions are:

1) Why were excess passengers cleared to go onboard the aircraft if the airline needed seats for staff? Why not refuse the passenger boarding at the gate? At the end of the day, the easiest fix is not to board anyone who cannot remain onboard.

2) Why was this passenger singled out? What made him so special? Was it truly a random choice?

3) Why did United not increase the compensation given to passengers for giving up their seats until the seat was cleared?

4) Were there really no other alternatives for the United staff in question? Was it operationally imperative that this abuse happen instead?

5) As an admittedly distasteful alternative, could the captain simply have said the plane cannot take off until someone volunteers to give up their seat?

6) Let us remember that this customer committed no crime. He paid for a ticket and he was allowed to board the aircraft. Why is this level of physical aggression OK by the rules? What kinds of rules are these anyway?

Break the Bloody Rules

There is nothing more despicable than a person who excuses terrible, clearly inhuman, clearly abusive behaviour by saying that they were only following the rules. History has proven that cowards and monsters hide behind rules.

United can’t apologise enough for bodily forcing this passenger off the plane in this manner.

To be clear, because this has rightly been pointed out, United staff did not drag this passenger off the plane. The police did. United staff asked the police to enforce deplaning.

Passengers should heed crew instructions at all times, by Federal law, this includes being asked to deplane when the airline asks them to. But nothing in USDOT regulations, or in Federal law, describes, condones, or recommends this level of aggression on a fare-paying passenger who refuses to comply with a request to deplane.

The PR damage which will come from this very serious breach of customer trust has only just begun. United’s actions reflect how unfriendly the skies have become in all stages of the journey.

This event follows a series of crises which go beyond United airlines, and which have the potential to rock the confidence of flyers everywhere.

Airlines are in a position to decide how they handle passenger crises.

Is it worth confusing customers on rules of dress because you want to very publicly enforce the rules governing staff pass dress? Fine. Each his own.

Is it appropriate to inconvenience thousands of passengers after a series of storms, because your policies prevent you from booking them on alternate carriers so that they can get wherever they are headed? All right. What you save in fares, you pay in operating costs and damage to your brand.

But when it comes to this level of abuse, when it comes to a clear violation of the trust that passengers will be transported safely to their destination, when the institution not only does this bodily harm but then attempts to hide behind its rules to pretend the harm away, it is time to ask whether such a carrier can be trusted to fly commercial passengers.

I cannot help but wonder what is wrong at the top of an organisation, that the most basic principles of customer care—don’t hurt the customer—are not instilled in the character and behaviour of every employee. Again, the police did this. But they did so on behalf of United. United employees chose to have the police remove this man by force rather than find an alternative way to resolve the overbooking.

This is as true for United as it is for the TSA as it is for CBP as it is for any airline around the world or any airport or any organisation responsible for safe journeys.

Rules or no rules, ethics, humanity, caring, good conscience must reign supreme. Otherwise, the industry will become a very bad place for travellers as the number of passengers increases in the years to come.

Not only do the overbooking rules require a second-look at this point, but the habit of some in aviation to resort to rules before common sense, and before common decency, must also be urgently reviewed.

This passenger experience is simply not acceptable, under any circumstances.

1 thought on “United: Don’t Blame the Rules, Blame the Ruler”

  1. Pingback: After United: It’s Not About Overbooking. Don’t Make It About Overbooking. | Flight Chic

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