Friday, April 14, 2017

Flying United, real horror

By now, I'm sure most people reading this have seen the video of the man being dragged off a United Airlines seat. If you haven't, it's horrific. The flight was apparently overbooked and the airlines was unable to get four people to volunteer. So they did the modern equivalent of choosing lots and drew four names at random. However one gentleman, reportedly a doctor refused to give up his seat. Security and the police were called, the boarded the planed and basically dragged the man off. The man briefly re-entered the plane, bloody, gripping a wall and chanting "Just let me die".

Early reports just indicated the flight was overbooked, but it looks as if United was actually opening the seats in order to accommodate four United staff members, The video has gone viral, sparking outrage, and a less than half hearted statement from United, with no actual apology for the traumatized paying customer or others on the flight.

I'll start of by saying that airlines do have the right to force people of the plane, for pretty much any reason. However I have never heard of a person being removed, after he was seated, unless he were being unruly, or disruptive. Likewise the police, when asked to remove a person, are in a bit of a bind. You can't sit and negotiate for hours with a plane at the gate. So what do you do? It was a situation that never should have happened, and United should not have let it escalate. You can blame the passenger, the cops and the flight crew, it's easy to say if any of them had responded differently this wouldn't have happened

United did ask for volunteers, offering a reported 800 dollars and a seat on the next plane. The problem is, it wasn't 800 dollars in cash, but in United Cash. Not hard spending money but currency that can only be spent on flights, and comes with a lot of restrictions. And of course the possibility of getting bumped from that flight. Add to that fact the next flight wasn't until 3:30 the next day. Which would entail a hotel room, and another pass through security getting groped, or sleeping in the terminal. That's a really appealing offer isn't it?

And why stop at 800 dollars? If it was that vitally important, why not a even thousand? Cash and a free flight voucher and free hotel. Or maybe they could have bought the crew tickets on a competing airline? Or rented a van and a driver? Or simply planned better?

Probably the worst mistake that United made was allowing the plane to fully board without having the volunteers. How much different the story might have been if four people were randomly selected and simply not allowed to board? Yeah, it's still a shitty deal, but the situation would be so much easier to control at the gate, versus on a crowded airplane. United is extremely lucky no other passengers, as far as we know, were injured.

This is a problem that was bound to happen. Ever since 911, we have given up more and more rights for the privilege of flying. While it might not be the root problem of this issue it definitely contributed. When yous step into an airport you become less than a person. You're  potential threat. That's why you can be searched, screened, poked, and groped, all without suspicion, cause or warrant.  That's why a 69 year old man was accosted by aggressive security for not giving up his seat.

The flight crew, and pilot pretty much have carte blanche to remove anyone from the plane, for any, or no reason. But they need to exercise it judicially, not just because a flight crew needs to be somewhere else. Although I have a feeling this might not have been wholly a decision by the flight crew, but by their supervision. But the call was made, the passenger, perhaps unwisely refused to give up his seat. The flight crew chose, or were ordered to escalate by calling security. That's when the fear if terrorism and America's growing police state collided in a near perfect storm. The passenger had to be removed, no negotiation, and you don't defy the police, or airport security. Comply or die.

But in the end, the fault lies with United. Doing some research for this article I found that United involuntarily bumps 3,000-4,000 passengers a year. I couldn't find direct comparison numbers from other airlines but I did find that Delta bumps an average of 3 out of 100,000 passengers involuntarily. In five years, ending in 2016 42,500 passengers were bumped involuntarily from United. (source the Boston Globe and federal statistics). American bumps an average of 5 per 100,000. Where is United? They average bumping 11 out of 100, 000.  (source twice the number of the other two airline giants combined. Don't get me wrong, over booking happens at all airlines, and at times it can't be helped. But it's clear United has a problem. Keep in mind there are involuntary bumps. Not the ones where passengers accept a coupon or cash to delay their flight.

I understand why the airlines over book. People cancel, canceled seats are lost revenue. Or are they. Have you tried to get a refund if you miss your flight? So if someone cancels, no shows, whatever that's money in the bank (usually there are some situations where a ticket might be refuned), and then that empty seat is resold. SO why oversell?

I sincerity hope this leads to change, not just at United but across the whole airline industry. We have gotten so used to be treated like animals that we come to think we deserve it. Already people are starting to blame the passenger. Because he should have accepted it, he should have blindly obeyed. As if his refusal warranted his treatment.  

Since I started writing this, there have been some positive steps. United has issued an apology, congress may investigate, and there is a bill to make it illegal to force a boarded passenger from his seat, in order for someone else to have a seat. United has also reported refunded all passengers on the flight their ticket price. Small steps, but positive ones.

One last update, the doctor in question is, according to several reports a convicted felon. But does that matter? Did the crew know this beforehand? And if so, do we really want airline crews passing moral judgement on citizens? It also has come to light that United may have violated the wording of their own Contract of Carriage more than once in forcing him off. But this is a long post already, so I'm ending it here. I may do a update if I feel it's needed.