How Not to Be an A-hole When…

… You Run an Airline

Okay, so we’ve all seen the video, right? And then read the absurd initial statement from the United CEO? And then the follow-up email to company staff? Followed by a few hundred million lost on the stock market, then something resembling the kind of apology a PR company might write?

Does the internet really need another hot take on this? I mean, of course not, but this type of thing is perfect for this website. Everyone involved in this incident (except the man who was brutally ‘re-accommodated’) was an asshole, and someone needs to remind them of how NOT to be an asshole.

Law Enforcement
So, first off, the video. The ‘law enforcement’ involved all acted like assholes. I am not in law enforcement, but unless someone came running off the plane yelling “he’s got a bomb!” or “someone is having a heart attack!”, there’s no need for urgency. Take a breath, and think. If someone working for an airline says “we need you to remove a passenger who won’t get off the plane,” maybe ask some questions. Like, for example, “why?” Here, let’s role play:

United Agent: “We need to you right away!”
Law Enforcement: “Of course. What law is being broken?”
UA: “Um, well, none technically, but this man won’t get off of our plane!”
LE: “Okay. Why does he need to get off the plane? Did he sneak on?”
UA: “No…”
LE: “Is he harming someone else?”
UA: “No…”
LE: “Did you check him in, check his ID, assign him a seat, and then welcome him onto the plan just minutes ago?”
UA: “Yes… but we need him to get off because we overbooked!”
LE: “Can’t you just … put the overbooked passengers on the next flight?”
UA: “No! It’s our staff!”
LE: “So, to be clear, there’s a dude, who legally secured a ticket and seat assignment on this flight, who you let on board, who is doing literally nothing except waiting for the flight to take off, and you want us to go on a forcibly remove him?”
UA: “Yes!”
LE: “Yeah … Nope.”

It’s not hard. Ask some questions. Maybe at some point along the way the United agent will realize that what they are asking is absurd.

Not surprisingly, instead of admitting that they fucked up and were TOTAL assholes, Chicago PD issued this absurd statement:

“At approximately 6:00 p.m., A 69-year-old male Asian airline passenger became irate after he was asked to disembark from a flight that was oversold. The passenger in question began yelling to voice his displeasure at which point Aviation Police were summoned. Aviation Officers arrived on scene attempted to carry the individual off of the flight when he fell. His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face. The man was taken to Lutheran General Hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Ongoing investigation.”

Let’s parse this out. The passenger may have become “irate” but only in response to what United was doing. They were trying to physically remove him from a flight that they let him onto minutes earlier, because United fucked up their own schedule. Then the passenger “fell?” Um, he wouldn’t have “fallen” unless PD decided to push and pull him like so much salt water taffy. And then “an armrest” caused injuries to his face? No, dude. No. YOU. You caused injuries to his face.

Of course, none of this would be an issue if United hadn’t fucked up in the first place.

United Policy
If your policy is to allow people onto a flight that is overbooked even though the people who don’t yet have seat assignments will “need” to fly (I’ll get back to this in a moment), you need to change your policy. As I shared on a friend’s post on Facebook, if I’ve boarded the plane and am in the seat that matches my ticket,then in my opinion that is my seat. The time to sort out overbooking and seating arrangements was before you scanned my code and sent me off down the hallway to the aluminum tube. If the airline has failed to sort out overbooking prior to boarding, that is their problem, and it shouldn’t result in my face being bloodied.

And, if the policy allows ‘bumping’ of passengers for flight crew, that policy also better include sorting it out before the flight boards. I get that United is an operation seemingly held together with chewing gum and rubber bands, but I’m guessing they have a system where they enter a name and that name gets assigned a seat. That can include staff, but if all the seats are assigned, you ask for volunteers, and then if you can’t get any volunteers at whatever is the maximum compensation that makes sense, the policy should allow for the flight crew to find another way.

Yes, this can create delays and cancellations down the road. Is it logical to inconvenience 140 people to save the inconvenience of four? Well … yes. Because these four people are on the flight and have already been seated. Any possible delays to the system from the crew not making it to their flight can be communicated to the people and they can be put on other flights if necessary. Things happen all the time that result in inconveniences and delays; the fact that United chose to that via their own logistical failure is mind-boggling.

But this brings me to the dumbest policy of them all: overbooking. Now, just as I am not in law enforcement, I am also not in airline management. But jetBlue has a policy of not overselling their flights, and things are working out pretty well for them. I won’t book a flight if it says “see agent for seat” because I know that I won’t be getting a seat. (My only exception to this is international flights booked on miles; those often are on partner airlines that I need to call to get my seat assignment). Unless I’m flying Southwest, I’m not going to the airport without a seat assignment, and that seat better be mine when I get on the plane.

Of course things will come up – maybe a plane has to be replaced with a different one with a different configuration – but those should be rare occurrences. And at no point should the resolution involve boarding passengers and then physically removing them.

United Gate and Flight Staff
Even despite everything listed above, there is no excuse for calling in the police to physically remove a passenger. Unless someone is actually causing or threatening to cause physical harm, or is harassing others, you should not be bringing in paid reinforcements to rough them up. Corporations should not get to use state violence to enforce their contracts. It’s just absurd, and it’s frustrating that there were no flight or gate staff willing to point out that whatever the policy, what they were doing was simply wrong.

United CEO
Oh buddy. OH buddy. You fucked this up in so many ways. From the initial statement:

to the beyond oblivious email to the company:

I remain flabbergasted. I get the desire to back up your staff, but come on.You say something to the effect of “Whatever policies led to this action need to be reviewed and revised immediately. I apologize to the man who we asked law enforcement to remove.”

Instead, two days later, we get this: “”We had not provided our front-line supervisors and managers and individuals with the proper tools, policies and procedures that allow them to use common sense,” Munoz said. “That’s on me. I have to fix that.””

Ya think?

To Sum Up – How Not to Be An Asshole
Law Enforcement – Don’t do the bidding of private corporations who want you to fix their poor business practices.
United Corporate Policy Staff – Stop overbooking, and stop creating situations where you feel you need to pull people off of flights.
United Gate and Flight Staff – Speak up when something immoral is happening.
CEO – Just stop.

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