United Airlines removal : why everyone involved is culpable

The shocking optics of the United Airlines removal apart, there’s still many opportunities for improvement on some worrying trends in air travel.

Whilst United Airlines could (and should) have resolved and avoided the situation, every party could be considered partially culpable and thus improve.

United Airlines removal - when keeping it real goes wrong

United Airlines removal – when keeping it real goes wrong

Who is at fault?


On reflection, every aspect of the escalation of the United Airlines removal was avoidable :-

  1. United could – and should – have avoided it getting to the point of involving security by managing the situation. IF they did this, all subsequent situations and consequences are moot points.
  2. The passenger could – and should – have avoided the outcome by either complying, or choosing to negotiate a mutually acceptable resolution. It is not for a passenger to decide he is more entitled a seat than others – that’s why there was a selection process.
  3. Security could have handled the deplaning better – somehow. It’s difficult to see how 3 big guys struggled to extract a slight, elderly, non-violent and coherent elderly man.

In my opinion, whilst I consider every party culpable for the escalation, of course United could (and should) have avoided the situation getting to that point, so are overall responsible.

Where it went wrong

There’s a few key aspects that could add to the story :-

  • It seems that the situation of needing the four seats was only informed AFTER boarding and the Gate Agents were not aware.
  • It was not strictly speaking an ‘overbooked’ flight, and there’s conflicting information about whether he was ‘denied boarding’ or ‘refused transport’. Both of these aspects could affect any legal interpretation of the incident.
  • Compensation was offered, and when the total 4 seats were not released crew advised passengers it would then resort to selection.
  • Despite a selection being made, it was not explained to the passenger why he had been selected.
  • Whilst the passenger’s wife apparently deplaned at the $800 compensation offer, United refused to offer any further inducements to the plane passengers.
  • One passenger stated he’d deplane for $1600, and was reportedly laughed at.
  • The passenger clearly states he would rather be jailed and dragged off rather than deplane. Even when repeatedly advised by security they will have to forcibly remove him.
  • Despite being removed during the fracas, the passenger managed to get back on the plane, which is another failing of the security ‘handling’.
  • The plane was delayed for around two hours due to ‘cleaning’ and removal of passengers.
  • Further flights from the airport were also delayed by up to an hour.
  • United issued two official communications, which seemed to contradict each other as to whether their procedures and policies had been applied correctly.
  • United have announced that every passenger will get some element of a refund.

United Airlines removal - pic c/o (Bild: Twitter/@pzambrana)

United Airlines removal – pic c/o (Bild: Twitter/@pzambrana)

So in essence, United’s refusal to change their mind, pay $800 to a different passenger has cost them – and other airlines – thousands in operational costs and potentially millions in PR and settlements.

What is the root cause of this issue?

I feel it’s tempting, but unreasonable to claim the need for 4 seats or operational/bad planning was the root cause of this.

Apparently, there’s over 40,000 deplaning incidents per year in the US, and whilst many are overbookings sometimes things just go wrong and need a resolution. I understand that United couldn’t transport the 4 crew on alternative means (Uber, other civil planes or even charter aircraft) due to Union regulations primarily.

Therefore, that leaves the need to find 4 seats on that plane pivotal, and I don’t feel United did anything like enough to resolve the situation. Whilst some may say this encourages a lottery-type scenario, I find it very difficult to think once it’s getting to a couple of thousand for a 2 hr flight then someone would have bit?

As it transpires, United chose to decline an offer of $800 more to solve this situation. Therefore, the root cause is United avoided taking responsibility to offer a discretionary payment increase of $800 that would have avoided everything else.

What sort of culture of fear must the United employees be in that makes them feel 800 dollars is a higher cost than the outcomes and consequences incurred?

Therefore, one possible improvement to resolve this in future is to make it more expensive to involve police/security than it is to compensate passengers.

What could be learned from this sorry situation?

There’s 5 underlying trends that concern me in stories like the United Airlines removal.

Airlines are dictatorships


As Scott McCartney wrote in his excellent article on The Middle Seat, airlines are indeed dictatorships. Since 9/11 there’s been worrying developments in cabin crew avoiding managing and de-escalating issues with passengers and resorting to security intervention.

Whilst it’s also true there are indeed increased occurrences of ‘air rage’, cabin crew need to be less reliant on the ‘ultimate sanction’ and take a little more responsibility in handling passengers properly sometimes.

Following crew instructions/orders


Whilst the legal aspects of following crew instructions/orders are likely to come under scrutiny with this incident, the refusal to comply is often the crux of incidents like this.

Of course, there’s scope for abuse by airline crew and staff, but in my opinion it’s wiser to comply first and complain/sue later. In the present climate, there’s only ever one winner – right or wrong – with disobeying crew on an airplane.

A trending debate on following crew orders is whether they are only enforceable for safety and security. However, this is not for passengers to decide, it’s for the crew – rightly or wrongly (again).

Crew can easily – as United actually did in their first communication – note this passenger as ‘unruly’ or non-compliant to justify their actions as in the interests of ‘safety’ or ‘security’


Precedents that may be set for future ‘unruly’ passengers


What worries me most about this incident is how far future passengers will go if they consider themselves ‘within their rights’ as this passenger did.

Of course United should have avoided it getting to this point, and were too stubborn in deciding to forcibly deplane the passenger.

However, the fact is – it was a real-world situation that happened (rightly or wrongly) and this passenger had an abundance of choices for a different outcome :-

  • He could have hard bargained for a better deal, either financially or for future travel (e.g. a first class long-haul)
  • If it was vital for him to be at his work the next day, he could have negotiated United to provide an Uber for the 6 hour drive and  agree reimbursement with compensation.
  • He could have complied, whilst still complaining in the strongest possible terms, and avoided physical intervention.

I simply feel that in that particular situation  – having to chosen between walking off peacefully or making a choice he knew would have a certain outcome – he was stubborn and foolish. It sets a dangerous precedent for passengers who feel they are in the right rather than respecting authority.

It’s like the Dave Chappelle sketch ‘when keeping it real goes wrong’ – whilst the passenger may receive a healthy settlement, was it all worth it for missing the flight anyway, the intrusion into his private life and the hassle?

Social media outfall looking at principles rather than situation


As with the United leggings incident, social media and outrage combined to prematurely object without salient information.

One point I feel is overlooked somewhat is the environment – a plane has different rules, and as we’ve said before, is a dictatorship. Rules are in place, along with procedures and policies, that should have covered this situation.

It was notable that two ‘camps’ seemingly emerged into the debate:-

  • the airline bloggers, looking from the safety/security/compliance/regulatory viewpoint
  • the consumer/civil liberties aspects of the situation, looking from a principle or customer service viewpoint.

To compare this incident with scenarios people are suggesting – e.g. paying for a hotel room and then being asked to vacate – overlook that airline travel is far more regulated with far more authority oversight.

In my own opinion, IF United chose to be as obstreperous as he was and contest solely on legal issues, I’m pretty sure they would win the case given the weight of regulations behind them.

It may be proven there are contraventions of their conditions of carriage on refusing transport or procedures, but the I feel the overriding point would be the non-compliance of the passenger to crew instruction.

However, far more likely would be United try to turn this into a PR win, settle privately and announce their ‘lessons learned’.

Condoning violence or authority apologist?

Let me be clear on one thing – I’m not condoning violence or the heavy handedness of the security.

Neither am I in anyway an ‘apologist’ for authority. The fact remains that this was not a protest march nor a kids playground argument.

In a real-world situation like this on a plane, authority should be respected for the greater good. It’s simply not open to debate nor discretion by passengers. Why should one man have the right to disrupt everyone else and other airplanes?

Argue all you wish about the rights, civil liberties etc. but surely everybody would prefer to go about air travel without these disruptions? If one is more concerned with the inequity of the system, simply don’t put yourself in that system.

What I am saying is: faced with a binary situation – one that will bring into place potential for violence or one that will avoid it – which is preferable?

How many people would genuinely and sincerely choose to be more concerned about being ‘right’ rather than manhandled – and why?

These incidents involving security on planes are more prevalent in America, and heavy-handedness of authority figures such as Law Enforcement Officers are also more of an issue there.

I’ve had guns pulled on me twice in America, and both times I chose to be safe rather than right – or injured.

The worrying part of this sort of brinksmanship is it promotes divergence rather than compromise. Two American-centric tendencies – to jump to ‘lawyer up’ or to excessive force rather than a mutually-acceptable resolution – clashed tragically in this shambles.

How can passengers avoid situations like the United Airlines removal?

It’s likely this passenger was selected by a computer or algorithm that may have considered several factors :-

  • check-in time – passengers checking-in closest to boarding time are most at risk
  • loyalty/elite status – passengers with no frequent flier status are most at risk
  • fare type – lower fare types such as saver, discounted or promotional are more at risk than flexible fares
  • Passenger Name Records/groups – for group/multiple passengers, they should ensure their details are on the same PNR to avoid potential split-up of group.


United Airlines removal – Conclusion

The United removal was shocking situation – mostly because it was completely avoidable – and my only hope is something good comes of it. Maybe a little more clarity on key issues such as following crew orders and making a wider awareness of the laws and conditions of carriage?

From a passengers point of view, many air travellers are not aware of conditions of carriage, but they should be. It’s deemed as a strict liability of acceptance when booking a ticket, so it makes a wiser traveller to be aware of them rather than assume.

Above all, I hope this sorry incident leads to clarification and improvement and underlying issues such as :-

  • Clear guidance for limitations (if any) of extent of crew orders needing to be followed
  • Improvement in training, education and accountability for crew dealing with passengers rather than the ‘ultimate sanction’
  • Reduction in air-rage incidents, unruly passengers and security involvement
  • Awareness of conditions of carriage and passenger rights (e.g. compensation)
  • Understanding of specific airline and regional/country policies esp. ref deplaning and crew interaction