Wind Shear Ahead: Commercial Aviation in the Age of Political Correctness

The commercial aviation industry suffered a series of upheavals in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Delta experienced a week-long logistical meltdown, resulting in thousands of delays and cancelled flights. Several days later, a video depicting the forced removal of a bloody passenger from a United Airlines flight went viral, causing uproar across social media and cable news. Then last week another video surfaced, this time involving an onboard altercation between two passengers and an American Airlines flight attendant. It seems the situation in our nation’s airports is finally boiling over. Tensions are high… and the summer travel season has only just begun. And though each incident is unique, they all speak to a broader undercurrent of ills plaguing our society.

If You Fail to Plan…

A single day of what Delta calls “unprecedented” thunderstorms at their Atlanta hub plunged the airline into utter calamity. One week later, they were still struggling to get a grip on the situation. But spring thunderstorms are commonplace in northern Georgia; and though the storms were bad, they didn’t warrant such catastrophic operational failures.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” And in this case, Delta failed. They had all of their eggs in one basket: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson-Clusterfuck International Airport; the world’s busiest. And when Hartsfield-Jackson finally shut down, it brought Delta’s entire operation down with it. But they could only blame “the storm” for so long; and eventually had to admit — albeit quietly — to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that much of the chaos was their own doing.

As with so many players in American industry, the innate desire to minimize costs (particularly those associated with labor and hiring) while maximizing revenue got the best of them. In their newfound success, they became complacent and greedy — perhaps even arrogant. Their staffing model left no room for error. Their technology was expected to fill the gaps… They were cutting corners and got burned.

Much Ado about Nothing…

The incident involving United finally brought to light one of the industry’s worst kept secrets — overbooking. After unsuccessfully attempting to entice enough passengers on overbooked flight, UA3411 to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation, the airline was forced to involuntarily pull a passenger from the flight. In this case, that passenger was Dr. David Dao.

After informing Dr. Dao that he had been chosen for removal, United staff claim Dao became combative, insisting that he wasn’t coming off. The Chicago Airport Police were called in. He continued to resist until he finally had to be forcibly removed from the flight. Due to the nature of his entrenchment and struggle, Dao’s removal was rough; resulting in a busted and bloodied face. Police literally had to drag him off the airplane like a sobbing brat from the cereal aisle. A few moments later he’s seen running back onto the airplane, screaming like a madman.

Upon purchasing a ticket, every passenger agrees to the terms and conditions of a “contract of carriage,” which explicitly states that airlines have a legal right to overbook flights and can deny transport to anyone for nearly any reason. Thus, United was acting entirely within their rights when they chose to remove Dr. Dao. Though policies outlining how passengers are chosen for involuntary removal differ between airlines, it is mandated by the Department of Transportation that they refund the passenger’s ticket (or offer other mutually agreed upon compensation) as well as re-accommodate them on the next available flight. Once Dao refused to comply, he was trespassing.

Following the incident, United CEO, Oscar Munoz released a statement apologizing for having to “re-accommodate a passenger,” but stopped far short of directly apologizing to Dao. Immediately the public began calling for his crucifixion. But what is there to apologize for? They had a right to pull him off. Dao refused. The cops were called. He refused their lawful order and got his face busted. End of story. How else were they going to get him off the airplane?

The principal issue here isn’t so much the airline’s handing of the incident, but rather the hurried conclusions drawn by the public and the media. As has become common in our digital era, everyone was so quick to draw a conclusion, yet so reluctant to objectively evaluate the situation. All they saw were pictures of a bloody man, screaming like a banshee as police drug him off like a corpse. This is then coupled with the horror stories we’ve all heard about and experienced while flying and… Boom — the court of public opinion has reached a verdict!

Of course in the days that followed, Munoz did the politically correct thing and retreated into the sort of disingenuous self-flogging we’ve all come to expect from corporate executives in the throes of a public relations disaster. Rather than sticking to his guns and actually explaining to the public what transpired and why, he began firing off a litany of limp-wristed policy reforms aimed at quelling public outrage. And in doing so, turned his back on his employees and the company.

Not without My Baby (Stroller)…

If the situation at Delta underscores the fallout of corporate conceit and the incident at United highlights their spinelessness, the recent confrontation onboard an American Airlines flight calls attention to the manic materialism and selfishness of the general public. Moreover, all three are shining examples of the intellectual indolence of the media, which gave Delta a pass while raking United and American over the coals.

In the case of American Airlines, a video surfaced showing a woman, holding a baby, crying after a male flight attendant reportedly snatched her stroller away — allegedly striking the woman and nearly hitting her baby. The scene ends with another angry passenger charging to the front of the airplane, threatening to assault the flight attendant, who appears to be daring him to do so.

After being informed there was no room for her stroller, the mother insisted she be allowed to search for onboard stowage space. On the surface this sounds reasonable. Yet had they allowed her to do so, the crew would have risked her delaying the flight. Airlines put immense pressure on their staff to push flights on time. Even a one minute delay is unacceptable. Besides, there are a hundred and fifty other people onboard who expect to arrive at their destination on time. There likely wasn’t time to allow this woman to go poking around in all the overhead bins.

This is a common problem that the airlines solved long ago. When bulky items that are allowed as carry-on luggage (strollers, mobility devices, musical instruments) won’t fit onboard, standard procedure is to “valet check” the item. A tag is placed on the stroller; it is stowed in the cargo hold for the flight and then returned to the passenger at the aircraft door upon deplaning. Judging from the video, the woman didn’t like this option and was determined to bring it onboard.

This is selfishness — the idea that her time and property are more important than everyone else’s. As humans, we innately value our “stuff” more than our neighbors. But when in public, particularly in a situation such as this, where it is necessary for a hundred and fifty people (or more) to work in concert toward getting to their destination on time, it is imperative that we cooperate with one another. And in this instance, the lady in question wasn’t being a team player.

To her I would say this (and it applies to everyone): You are not special. The fact that you have a baby does not allow you to bend or break the rules. You are climbing aboard a metal tube with a bunch of other people (and all of their junk) and that tube is about to go hurling through the air at four hundred miles an hour. Get over yourself! Again… you are not special.

Let’s face it, flying is a shitty experience. It sucks. Flights are increasingly full, the seats are cramped and space is at a premium. On top of that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, roughly twenty percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. That means that one out of every five people on the airplane is unstable… It’s like riding a big Greyhound bus through the sky. Breathe. Sit down, bite the bullet and take it. If you don’t like it, buy a first class ticket or drive.