Why "Un"Friendly Skies Must Change

I love flying, contrary to how many people feel about getting inside a glorified Pringles can and being hurled at a speed of 500mph thousands of feet above the ground. In fact, I have such a love of flying that one of my secret dream jobs is to work for an airline. I have actually applied to be a flight attendant before, which may be surprising for some people to learn about me. Part of that process involved researching how airlines run and operate. As a result, I feel like I know more than just a thing or two about the flying experience — from the perspectives of both the passenger and the airline.

Which is why I am so disappointed today with United Airlines. Initially, when I heard about Sunday’s incident on Flight 3411, I only read brief reports on the passenger’s noncompliance to being involuntarily bumped from a flight, and United’s response to the matter. The verbiage was pretty straightforward, and sparse on specific details apart from the outcome. Since then, however, I have watched multiple cell phone clips of the incident, from different angles. And I have read multiple news reports and opinion blogs weighing in on what happened and implications moving forward. Having dedicated more time to digesting the issue, and checking my own biases (whether I realized them before or not) while trying to look at the bigger picture, this is what I have to say about the incident of United Airlines Flight 3411:

I am APPALLED and HORRIFIED.

Normally, in a situation where an airline oversells a flight, the airline will offer compensation in the form of travel vouchers to the lowest bidder willing to be voluntarily rebooked on a later flight. When there are no takers at a particular stated compensation, the airline will continue to up the ante until they have the desired number of passengers who willfully agree to be displaced.

Leading up to Flight 3411’s departure, agents at the gate in Chicago announced that the flight would be oversold and that the airline would be seeking volunteers to be rebooked in exchange for a compensation of $400 per passenger. This follows standard policy. When no one came forward, the airline upped the ante to $800 per passenger, at which point the agents were still looking for 4 volunteers to give up their seats for rebooking on a later flight. However, no one came forward.

When not enough volunteers come forward for displacement off an oversold flight, it is standard policy for the airlines to resort to involuntary rebooking. That is, assuming there is ample time remaining before the scheduled departure. Otherwise, if the plane has already boarded all ticketed passengers, those waiting to board on standby are out of luck.

This is where United Airlines made a huge mistake, and which led to the events that transpired on Sunday. In this case, the gate agents didn’t start the involuntary rebooking process until AFTER they had started the boarding process. Consequently, passengers were not notified of their involuntary bumped status until after they were already on the plane, in their seats. This is outside the norm of rebooking policies and procedures.

In its official statement following the incident, United Airlines reported that these passengers were bumped in order to accommodate United’s own crew members coming in on standby from other flights. This is a big deal. Even with employment benefits, airline employees flying standby are, by policy, still considered standby passengers, and are not supposed to receive preferential treatment over paying customers. A possible exception would be if these particular standby crew members needed to get to another flight due to labor shortages. However, if this truly were the case in this incident, United would have clearly expressed this in their official statement. The fact that the rebooking process for Flight 3411 occurred at the very last minute, when United was already admitting paying customers on board, makes the situation at hand very sketchy.

Which leads us, then, to the events on the plane. One of the four passengers randomly chosen to be rebooked — a 69 year old Chinese-American doctor — refused to move from his seat, as was technically his right in this case. So law enforcement officers were called in to escort a noncompliant passenger off the plane.

And then chaos ensued.

United claims that the passenger was belligerent and hostile when told he needed to deplane. Considering that the only video evidence we have of the passenger is of him being bloodily dragged off — hitting his forehead on the armrest across the aisle — I conclude that the passenger was justified in being resistant. The implications of racial profiling, in a supposedly randomized selection process, is a serious shot at the integrity of United’s slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies.” The extreme cruelty and ambivalence of the law enforcement officers is uncalled for, even if United wasn’t in breach of its own protocol. And the violence that erupted in the wake of removing this passenger made for a very tense flight when the plane took off a mere few minutes after he was gone.

In a practical sense, I understand that I agree to all of the terms and conditions as outlined in the ticketing policy when I purchase an airplane ticket, including agreeing to comply with rebooking requests. However, I am infuriated by the practice of overbooking flights — not only when it becomes an inconvenience to me as a passenger, but when I see an airline deliberately use overbooking to sidestep its own logistical shortcomings. It is business practices like these that instigate oppression of the masses, a situation in which the consumer is completely subject to the merciless will of the corporate monster. Airlines successfully operate thousands of flights daily, but consumers have long been duped and manipulated by corporate interests. Since 1974, airlines have been free to set their own prices, business practices and customer service policies independent of federal regulation, apart from safety standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration. Especially now that 4 private companies — United, American, Delta, and Southwest Airlines — operate 70% of American commercial air routes, the airline industry acts like an oligopoly skewing toward a shared monopoly between 4 actors, with little regard for consumer voice. It is in these conditions that we arrive at incidents like what occurred on Flight 3411 — inhumane, insensitive, and inexcusable.

As a course of action, I see some meaningful steps that can be taken. Boycotting United Airlines’ services is one thing to be done. Another is to call or email customer service lines and politely but firmly express disgust over the incident with Flight 3411. Yet another step is to write leaders in Congress and address the need for a systemic overhaul in dismantling the airline oligarchy and protect consumer rights. In an age where injustices are being manifest at every level of society, it is crucial that we demand accountability and responsibility to avoid these types of situations.