Okay, before we even start on this topic, I ask you to put down your pitchforks and torches for just a moment while we look at what happened in a non-emotional way.
Obviously the internet is abuzz with this story, some folks even claiming racism as the motive behind it. Clearly this is not the way United wanted things to go down, but here we are. Given the reports I’ve read and of course the video footage, I think there is more to this story then we know. This does not mean I’m supporting United in the actions that happened, but I don’t think this was racially motivated. I rather think this was an emotional reaction that could have very easily been avoided.
So, obviously we know that United overbooked the flight As a frequent air traveler I’m not surprised by this. It does happen on most carriers. In the U.S. air travel used to be an exciting thing to do, now has become more of a commodity and the people who travel are treated as such. The flight crew is told their primary responsibility is safety, but customer service is not really something that is focused on. In addition, many of these people are given a lot of authority on the aircraft. They are human too, and suffer the same faults as other humans. sometimes this can make people a bit more abrasive, especially when they know that there isn’t much you can do about it.
On the flip side, this has made air travel more stressful and indeed more irritating for the traveler. Now combine this with the folks that feel like they have to carry their entire house worth of stuff onto the plane, taking up more than their own amount of overhead space, being very selfish, and you start to have a recipe for high tensions and associated aggressive attitudes.
So, now you have irritated passengers and empowered flight Crews mixed in this tiny tube on the runway or in the air. Things tend to go wrong.
So what went wrong in this case? I honestly believe that both sides have a part in this. Starting with United, this should have been resolved before people got on the plane. I can tell you that I’ve been moved 15 rows back on a plane after boarding and it annoyed me a lot. My boarding pass had me and row 15, they moved me back to row 30. I wasn’t even having to get off, they just changed my seat without telling me.
I have no doubt that he was selected randomly, or maybe pseudo-randomly based on class of service, check-in time, or similar variables. Same thing happens with seat upgrades, it can be based on your original ticket class, time of check-in, etc. I do not believe this was racially motivated.
Finally, I believe the police were actually from the airport as opposed to United employees. Likely, the way this went down is that he was being belligerent (again, he had the right to be pissed), they called security to deal with the issue and the police went way too far with it. Is that United’s fault? Only sort of. The root cause was their over booking of the flight, however the actions of the police officers were their own and in my opinion they are most responsible for the violent removal of the Doctor. Think about it this way, if a store owner call the police because a customer does not like a policy and is becoming belligerent, then the police take it too far, is that the fault of the store owner?
With respect to the Doctor it is a little bit tougher, however many of the reports do say that he had been belligerent and that’s why they ended up calling in the police. Did he have a right to be irritated, yes, but I would bet that United is on firm legal ground with respect to “re-accommodating” passengers. We don’t have the part where he may have been belligerent on video, but I caution you that there are usually two sides of a story and neither is always 100% accurate. I have the feeling that a lot of things happened prior to the police coming on board that led to that happening. I’m not saying it should have gone down like this, because I don’t think it should have, but I seriously doubt he was being in any way cooperative. That then escalated into what we have here.
Before we jump on the bandwagon here I guess I’m suggesting we take a step back and consider the issue without the emotional parts involved. United screwed up bad, the Police in my opinion did not handle this well and we are seeing the fallout from that. just keep in mind that there may be other parts to this that we haven’t seen or aren’t aware of. I’ve been on flights where unruly people have been removed, I’ll be less violently, and honestly it was a relief to many of the other passengers. In this case, I don’t know if that was the way it happened, but we have to be careful applauding the involuntary removal of belligerent people in some cases, but not others.
In closing, until the U.S. airlines can start treating their people like humans and less like cargo, packing humans in to every spare inch of the plane, tensions will remain high and we will see more and more things like this.
Erich Kron is the Security Awareness Advocate at KnowBe4, and has over 20 years’ experience in the medical, aerospace manufacturing and defense fields. He is the former security manager for the US Army 2nd Regional Cyber Center-Western Hemisphere.