Get Off the Fucking Plane

By now you’ve all probably heard about United Airlines’ public relations/customer service   fiasco. If you didn’t here it is in a nutshell – a plane was overbooked, they had to get a flight crew of four on board, they offered $800 in vouchers for volunteers to deplane, there were no takers, they said the plane wasn’t leaving until four people got off, no one budged, so they picked four people, one guy refused to go, he was physically escorted off the plane by the cops and, while they were hauling him away, he got hurt. All captured on cell phone video. Social media predictably exploded. Cue the well-paid crisis management consultants.

My initial reaction to this was, “I’ll bet no one in first class was asked to leave.” I was also pissed at the United CEO’s carefully parsed reaction. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United” he wrote. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Pure corporate speak bullshit. “Re-accommodate?” That’s what you call man-handling an older person off a plane? Gimme a break. Now United’s out a billion dollars. 

But a good friend’s reaction to this whole affair surprised me. “Get off the fucking plane!” he said. “What the captain of the plane says goes!”

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh?” I said.

“I fly every couple of weeks,” he said. “I’ve been bumped off flights and I’m a preferred customer. And if they offer me a voucher for another flight I usually take it and put it towards a vacation.”

“But what if you need to really get home?”

“Did everyone on that flight really need to get home?” he said. “Not one of them could’ve taken another flight? Delay their plans for a single day? No one? Are they all surgeons separating conjoined twins the next morning? As far as I’m concerned, everyone on that flight was a selfish asshole.”

“Don’t say that on Twitter,” I said. “You’ll get crucified.”

“I don’t care,” he said. “And you know what? Ask yourself why four crewmembers had to deadhead on that flight. Maybe they were a relief crew for a sick pilot somewhere.  Maybe the pilots on that plane had flown too many hours for that day. If they’re going to kick passengers off a plane I’m sure they didn’t do it just so their employees could get a free ride home. The safety of everyone should always be an airline’s primary concern.”

“Yes,” I said. “That could all be true. But the airline could have found a better way. Perhaps book the flight crew on another airline.”

“Sometimes you’re just fucked,” my friend said. “End of story. Take the voucher and order room service on United’s dime.”

To be honest, I’ve noticed air travel tends to bring out the worst in people. Ever since they took the free pretzels away flying has lost any semblance of being cool or fun. You’re basically riding on a pressurized aluminum bus at 30,000 feet. And with carry on fees, charging you extra for an aisle seat, TSA workers looking down your pants, worrying if in-flight entertainment will consist of a shoe bomb or drunk celebrities needing to be flexi-cuffed, flying is stressful. And unless you’re in first-class, you’re crammed cheek to jowl with a bunch of farting, germ-spewing people displaying varying levels of social graces.

Once I was flying home and seated next to a tearful little boy who, for reasons I’ll never figure out, wasn’t seated next to his mother. I was by the window and the boy was in the middle seat. Before the plane took off the flight attendant asked the man on the aisle to move. “Not my problem,” he said. I could have told the attendant the guy was a jerk because he hogged up all the carryon space with his oversized shit, forcing my bag into checked luggage. “I’ll go,” I said, getting up. Off course I ended up between two fat sweaty guys.

“You’re such a nice man!” a lady behind me said. But once we took off, the little boy began wailing uncontrollably. That’s when the luggage fetishist on the aisle began badgering the flight attendant for another seat. “No can do,” the steward said, karmic joy dripping from her voice. “You were already given the opportunity.”

I turned to the lady behind me. “I’m not a nice guy. I knew that kid was gonna blow.”

Then there’s the people I like to call airline lounge pricks. Because my wife is also an über flyer, whenever I travel with her I gain entrée into a cloistered lounge with free liquor, food and Wi-Fi –  far from the hoi-polloi sitting on their luggage at the departure gate. So, last fall my wife and I were taking a morning flight to L.A. and the lounge was crowded, not a single free seat to be had.

“This sucks,” I said.

“There’s an even nicer lounge than this one,” my wife said. “I’ll bet that one’s empty.”

“There’s another lounge.” I said. “Really?”

“We’re not rich enough, dear.”

Deflated, I looked to see if anyone was getting ready to leave. No one was budging. In fact, no one was even talking. The lounge was quiet. Too quiet. Everyone was reading newspapers, fiddling with computers or munching on food. I also noticed that no one acknowledged the workers clearing plates or restocking the coffee bar. No hellos, no thank yous. The patrons all  seemed hell bent on maintaining some rarefied mystical bubble of privacy. Then I spied a circle of four chairs around a table with only one guy sitting there. The other three chairs were claimed by a coat, a carryon and a computer. The guy wanted the whole place to himself.

“This stuff yours?” I said to the man. When he didn’t acknowledge me, I picked up his coat and carryon and placed them on top of his computer.

“Thanks, pal,” I said. “Appreciate it.”

The man looked at me like I shot his dog. “That’s my stuff,” he said, sternly.

“And it’s still your stuff. Isn’t that wonderful?” I said as my wife and I plopped into the newly freed seats. The man glared at us, I smiled beatifically at him. After a minute he shook his head, collected his crap and left.

“I’m so glad you’re good at confronting people,” my wife said.

“I used to deal with people like that all the time in the restaurant business. Screwing with them gives me joy.”

So, I’m not surprised none of the passengers offered to give up their seats. Airline travel, whether it’s because of the airlines’ thirst for profits or declining public civility, is a freak show. But someone, when they saw the cops come on board and realized that guy was going to be forcibly ejected, should have given up their seat. You can argue the man should have left quietly and I’d probably agree, sometimes you just get the short end of the stick.  But I’m annoyed that some of the passengers recorded videos of that old man getting dragged out on their cell phones and Tweeted about it. When did using social media become a substitute for doing the right thing? People everywhere freak about the tone-deafness of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad but, when faced with a situation that required someone to be a human being, to do the uncomfortable thing, people completely wimped out. I’ll wager the “bystander effect,” passengers’ sick of being treated like cattle and the corrosive effects of hiding behind gizmos to avoid reality probably had something to with it. Now I’m not saying United’s sinless, far from it, but let’s face it, 46,000 people a year get booted off flights. My friend was right, no one is that special. Someone should have got off the fucking plane. 

Social scientists will be writing about this for years.

17 thoughts on “Get Off the Fucking Plane”

  1. Deb says:

    Yes instead of letting an old man getting manhandled by the cops one of those phone wielders – i am really surprised by this current gizmo attachment of humans – should have volunteered. If they didn’t think that was going on was wrong, then I am guessing they wouldn’t bother to either record the video or tweet about it.

  2. Kate says:

    Brilliant. Best piece I’ve read about the incident. Thank you. What is wrong with people?!

  3. Chris says:

    No, it’s United’s problem. Bus the crew from Chicago to Louisville (or from Louisville to Chicago – can’t remember the order) or raise the price you are offering for a seat to make it worthwhile for a passenger to step off. Enrolling the local cops was way above and beyond.

    1. Chris says:

      Here’s some additional information, including noting that another flight leaving after that one.

      http://consumerist.com/2017/04/11/united-says-controversial-flight-wasnt-overbooked-airline-crew-just-needed-the-seats-more/

      Absent any other context, your friend sounds like a jerk, by the way.

  4. SM Ouellette says:

    Thank you! I agree. Someone on that plane should have done the right thing and volunteered.

  5. S says:

    They shouldn’t have boarded the plane if they had extra people they wanted on board.

    ..cuz once you are in your seat with a boarding pass you don’t want to give up your seat…They were not going to get to where they were going until 3:00pm the next day…so you would have to stay overnight. What if you had a big work meeting you were going to? Or patients to see at the hospital? Or your cruise was leaving? Or you had a connecting flight? Or you hadn’t seen your family in a week?
    You have your pick up from the airport all set…you have to rearrange that or pay more for parking.
    And was the man’s wife also chosen? What are they supposed to do if they have to travel separately?
    Or what if you are diabetic/have any kind of health issue and didn’t bring enough meds for a another day?

    Why didn’t United keep upping the $$ until they got a volunteer?

    1. waiter says:

      I think if they kept upping the ante as is were, that might set a precedent and no one would ever volunteer, just hold out for a bigger pay day. I think there are also guidelines set up by the Dept. of Transportation regarding what those fee should be.

      1. WB in AZ says:

        United recently announced that they will offer up to $10,000 for an involuntary bump. You’re right about holding out. If I am ever in that situation I’m going to hold tight for the big pay and hope I get bumped. However, I doubt the $10,000 will ever be paid. It’s a bidding war and someone is bound to grab for a sure thing rather than wait for the big payoff.

  6. Terentia says:

    I don’t fly but I have friends who do. They are always excited when the need to bump passengers comes up. They sit out the first offer but their hands are the first in the air for the second offer. As your friend said, “room service on (the airline’s) dime” and cash- what’s not to like?

  7. Chris says:

    Here’s some additional color reflecting on what a bad decision this was for United.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2017/04/united-passenger-removal-reporting-management-fail.html

  8. Kaleberg says:

    United is a shit company. They reaped what they sowed. When I worked as a consultant for them in the 1990s, the entire company was a group of armed camps who all hated each other. Stations hated crew. Crew hated dispatch, Dispatch hated maintenance. Maintenance hated cabin. Everyone hated the CEO and the suits. It was weird. You expect some conflicts, but these groups loathed each other. It was visceral, and it showed up in the way United dealt with outsiders. I was working with a big company with good lawyers, so we didn’t lose our asses, but we could feel the hate.

    That said. United should have raised the bounty, and offered real money, not useless flight vouchers. I’m guessing they’d have gotten plenty of takers at $2K a seat, cash money. United could have also considered an alternate way of getting the crew moved. Moving four crew members meant something major was whacked. Private jet rentals are expensive, but United probably could have rented a small jet and flown their people for less than an $8K buyout, and certainly for less than what this idiocy is going to cost them.

    Your friend is totally off base. Sure, someone could have done something nice for United Airlines and helped them out in this situation, but I doubt anyone can remember United Airlines ever doing something nice for them or anyone else, ever. In fact, the roads must roll attitude is pernicious. I remember the 1980 PATCO strike and a friend whining that he couldn’t fly anywhere because of those nasty flight control union guys. Then Reagan busted the union and no one in the bottom 60% of the economy has seen a raise since. Maybe United needs to be shut down by a passenger strike. Maybe all of the airlines do. We’ve been pushing the envelope with just how crappy the airlines can make air service as an unregulated monopoly. Sometimes there is a bigger picture than one’s own personal convenience or one particular flight.

    1. waiter says:

      A cop friend of mine was once called to an elementary school where a little kid was breaking up a classroom, well as much as a tiny boy can do. The teachers locked the kid in the classroom and called the cops. “Arrest him” they said, explaining that the child’s parents were getting divorced and he wasn’t taking it well.

      My friend said, “I’m a police officer, I catch criminals. This is YOUR problem. Figure it out.” Then he left. My question is why the cops didn’t turn to United personnel and said, “No way we’re doing this.” Any cop worth his salt would have seen the PR nightmare this was going to cause and I think their legal justification was dubious. I do think the man should have left, but I don’t think he deserved to get dragged out like a crook.

      Dr. Dao is going to sue for millions. A good stake for the poker tables.

  9. Arpita says:

    I can imagine how the reactions would have been if this Asian was an Indian.. well that aside, resorting to physical action was unnecessary in my opinion.

  10. Edward Sargisson says:

    “My friend was right, no one is that special.”
    You friend is wrong, *everyone* is special enough to not be unnecessarily assaulted.

    I appreciate your position. I can see why people think that.
    I’ve also seen legal analysis (which sadly I can’t find right now) that passengers are only required to comply with legal orders. There was nothing in United’s contracting requiring him to give up his seat merely because they claimed to be overbooked. Thus it wasn’t a legal order.

    To use the hypothetical in the analysis I read. If the crew ordered passengers to have a fist fight in the aisles would they be required to do it or be assaulted and dragged off the plane?

    There are valid reasons to require a passenger to leave – they’re listed in United’s contract and they are what you expect. Unruly passengers, etc.

    By all accounts, Dr Dao was merely sitting in his seat – and did not deserve to be forced to comply by assault.

  11. Rebecca C. says:

    Could’ve had a V8!

  12. Smithy says:

    I’m a little late to the game, but I heard a retired 22 year employee of United on the radio. He was basically one of the people who handled flight boardings, etc. to make sure flights are running smoothly and as on time as possible. According to him, when a plane is overbooked, they are to ask for people to voluntarily give up a seat BEFORE boarding begins. Once they are on the plane and seated, they are good to go. People may only be taken off a flight for being unruly, drunk, etc but NOT because they overbooked. From what I understand this flight was NOT overbooked, but since they had four employees needed at another location they wanted four seats to get them there. According to the gentleman on the radio, this should never have happened and is an indication of poor management and poor scheduling of employees. It was his point of view that United management is incompetent and just doesn’t care about the paying customer to the point that they will physically remove someone who has every right to be there.

  13. Sheena says:

    Brilliant to have you writing again! And yes, folk should consider more than just themselves.

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