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United Airlines part II: The good, the bad, and the bloody



George Washington University


United Airlines part II: The good, the bad, and the bloody

After dragging a passenger off a flight, United has some 'splainin' to do

Emily Milakovic


At the end of March, I published a piece defending United Airlines after it was attacked for a "leggings ban." My story was premised on the idea that United was actually not policing random girls, but, like all airlines, has policies for what their employees wear while traveling.

I stand by that story. However, its headline, "Before you bash United Airlines, read the full story" has not aged well.

Earlier this week, United came under fire after a video surfaced of a passenger, Dr. Daniel Dao, being forcibly dragged from an overbooked flight for refusing to give up his seat. While the event was horrible, once again, the Internet is looking for blood without knowing the full story.

So, hopefully for the last time, let's walk through the full story.

United should not have boarded an oversold flight.

I've been on plenty of flights where, prior to boarding, the gate agents give the "we are looking for [X] number of people to move to a later flight; they will receive a travel voucher" line. United made that announcement roughly 20 minutes before boarding and offered a $400 voucher. Evidently, no one took it.

United went ahead and boarded the flight. That should not have happened. To avoid potentially having to forcibly remove people, those bumps should be planned before they asked them to move. If you need four people to give up their seats and none do, you should go ahead and cut four people, tell them, and then begin boarding.

United itself didn't assault anyone. The passenger was removed by airport security.

The Internet handled this incident the two ways it knows best: memes and uninhibited rage.

People are criticizing United for "assaulting" the man, saying the crew should be fired.

The man was actually removed by officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation (CDA), which oversees both major Chicago airports. The CDA did not identify any of the officers involved in removing the passenger, but said three have been placed on administrative leave.

Is bloodying a man and dragging him down the aisle of a plane acceptable? No. But that failing is primarily on the security officers, not United.

The crew was not technically a United crew.

The crew was from Republic Airline, a regional airline that flies under major airlines, such as United and Delta, sometimes with less experienced crews. This order still came from United so it should be held accountable, but a more seasoned United crew may have reacted differently.

That's not to say all United crews would have handled this better, or that all Republic crews are inexperienced or unprofessional. But Republic crews may not necessarily be prepared for some unexpected difficulties.

"This occurred on one of our contracted Express carriers, separately owned and operated by Republic (Airways), and was ultimately caused by the grossly inappropriate response by the Chicago Department of Aviation," the pilots union said in a statement on Thursday.

Buying a ticket is not a written-in-stone promise.

As a pilot's daughter, I usually fly standby, choosing my flights based on which ones have the most open seats, so I can't fully understand the anger a paying passenger might feel after losing a seat. Unfortunately, every time you buy a ticket, the fine print stipulates that you agree to possibly losing your seat in some instances.

Again, that doesn't mean any of this should have happened or that it was handled well. But technically, paying passengers can be bumped, though normally you see this when the flight is oversold.

I think the passenger probably should have deplaned when he was told to (not that he deserved what happened to him). However, I say this because of my background - I always try to follow all instructions to avoid making my pilot parent look bad.

The man may have gotten off lucky.

No, I don't mean the officers should have roughed him up even more. But at some point, this man managed to run back on the plane after being removed. No one really paid attention to that fact; everyone focused on the images of his bloody face. While those were certainly disturbing, it's unclear how he got back on the plane after being removed by officers. It's possible he was allowed back on to gather his belongings, and didn't actually run back on without permission.

Additionally, some people, such as this pilot's wife, have gone overboard talking about the man running back on the plane. This woman cited his running back as a "security risk," and even referenced 9/11. While I agree that it's certainly a security risk if someone re-boards a plane without permission, his refusal to deplane in the first place didn't make him a terrorist security threat, yet he was still dragged out.

United didn't kick this man off to give a "trip" to non-paying travelers.

The crew members who were added in place of the removed passengers (note: the other three passengers who were asked to deplane, though obviously unhappy, left without incident) were not traveling as passengers. They weren't off-duty employees waiting on standby lists.

Believe me, employees/their families traveling as standbys are not priorities. Paying passengers will not be bumped for us. It will be five minutes before boarding is supposed to end and the gate agent will still be paging paid passengers who haven't showed before giving those open seats to us.

That crew was working and needed to get to the other airport, because a few delays can spiral into massive ones. It's an unfortunate system, and I personally believe airlines don't always do the best at having needed crews, but it's just how air travel works.

Long story short, no one handled this terrible incident well.

United should have dealt with the overbooked issue before boarding, the CDA officers could have handled the incident much more peacefully, and the passenger probably should have gotten off when instructed to.

United erred, and they made it worse by at first defending the choice without criticizing the officers' handling of it, but they don't deserve the full bashing they're getting. However, United, can you please try to lay low for a while? I'd like to not make a part three.