I Know You’re Mad at United but… (Thoughts from a Pilot Wife About Flight 3411)
If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there are always two sides to every story.
On April 9th, a very unfortunate incident played out on United Flight 3411, the video of which has since gone viral causing a mass social media uprising with an ‘off-with-their-heads’ mentality. I mean, across the board. Fire ’em all and let the gods sort it out later.
Look, I get it. When I first saw the video I was appalled too. To say that it was inflammatory would be putting it mildly. But it was also a situation that was escalated far beyond the boundaries of necessity.
If a any law enforcement officer asks me to exit a plane, no matter how royally pissed off I am, I’m going to do it and then seek other means of legal reimbursement. True story.
Knowing what I know about airport security, I’m certainly not going to run back into a secured, federally restricted area at an airport flailing my arms and screaming like a banshee…because, you know, that just happens to be breaking a major federal Homeland Security law.
But that’s just me, obviously.
The moment I made that particular ill-advised choice, I would become an immediate and imminent threat to the aircraft’s security. That’s kind of a big deal. I mean, come on, I once actually had to remove my infant son’s socks because they mimicked little baby sneakers. These guys mean business.
I didn’t like it. I thought it was just plain stupid, honestly. But instead of pitching a massive fit, refusing to comply, and bolting through the TSA checkpoint like an out-of-control toddler, I did the big girl thing–sucked it up, removed the offensive socks, and went on with my happy life, sans being tackled and dragged through the airport in handcuffs by a bunch of big men with guns.
Because if you choose to take advantage of the services the airport provides, you play by their rules.
I know you’re all out there screaming that the ‘rules’ are unfair, but I am a pilot wife. I remember 9/11. Do you? I want my husband, the father of my children, to come home. I want you to get home. That law exists to protect my husband. And your wife. And your grandmother. And your child. And you. I, for one, am glad for the law.
I’m not here to dispute the facts of 3411 with you. I am not interested in getting into an argument of opinion with anyone. We’re all entitled to our own. I’m not arguing that what happened wasn’t completely terrible–it was, on multiple levels. But I am suggesting that the general public take another look at the situation, ask a few more questions, gather a few more facts, and then create a less hostile and more intellectually wrought opinion about what happened.
Because the media is giving you just enough information to keep you enraged–enough to keep their ratings up.
Things to consider:
1) “You can’t just kick a paying customer off the plane!” Psssst! It’s in the fine print. They can, indeed, do just that. And it’s not an airline specific rule, it’s a commercial aviation rule. Every ticket you purchase comes with a plethora of fine print–you know, the stuff we just click ‘next’ on without actually reading what we are agreeing to. Yeah, that. Well, it’s in there, and you checked the ‘I agree’ box when you purchased your ticket. You can read about it and oh-so-much-more here. Kind of makes you want to read all those tiny words on your next phone update before you click ‘I agree’, huh? You should. United did not break any law, and he agreed to the policy and possibility of involuntary bump when he bought his ticket. And so do you.
2) “Kicking a paying customer off an airplane!? I’m taking my business to Southwest!” Ummmm, okay. But just be sure you understand that every major airline, Southwest included, has a similar policy for involuntary bumping in a ‘must ride’ scenario. Don’t believe me? It’s called the contract of carriage. If you’re really bored, you can read Southwest’s here. Or Delta’s here. And on and on. This could have been any airline. In fact, it happens all the time. Most people just don’t wrestle law enforcement in the aisle.
3: “So what’s this ‘must ride’ nonsense anyway? They shouldn’t bump a paying customer for a free employee ride!” It’s actually pretty important to you as an airline traveler that they can. They were not ‘freeloading home’. That’s called non-rev and they have to wait in line behind your checkbook and often don’t make it home to their families if flights are booked (believe me, I know). No, this was a must fly, a positive space situation. In layman terms, it means that a crew must be flown to an airport to man a flight in order to avoid cancellation of said flight due to crew unavailability. The airlines are required to do so to avoid disruption of air traffic. In other words, if there are no willing volunteers and they need seats to get a crew somewhere to avoid disruption of aviation flow, they can, will, must bump people for the better good of the 1000’s. Why? Because one cancelled flight has a serious domino affect in the delicate, complicated world of connections and aviation law. This is not illegal. The only thing DOT requires in this situation is that the passenger is reimbursed his/her money.
4: “It’s the airline’s fault for not planning better!” Do some research! The airline industry is conpex. There are about a million and one things that can cause a crew shortage including but not limited to weather, maintenance, weather, connecting fight delays, weather, FAA timeout regs, and did I mention weather? I wish I could control Mother Nature because I would be one filthy rich person. But I can’t. And neither can United. So they inconvenience one, or four, to keep hundreds on track. Do the math. And of course, if we were on the other end of this thing, we’d be tirading and blowing up the internet because United didn’t bump a passenger to make sure our flight didn’t get cancelled and left hundreds stranded. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. We’re a fickle crowd, we social media folks.
5: They shouldn’t have picked the minority Chinese doctor! It’s racist.” That’s just silly. Though federal regulation demands they involuntarily bump to prevent interruption of flights when necessary, each airline does have the leniency to determine how they choose the bumped passengers. They did not play spin the bottle or walk down the aisle looking for the Asian guy. Use your heads, people! There is a computerized algorithm that takes into account price of ticket, how long ago it was purchased, whether or not they can get the passenger to their destination in a timely manner, etc. It wasn’t an ‘Asian thing.’ Stop, people. Just stop. **added note: it has been discussed that Dr. Dao may have initially volunteered his seat and wasn’t chosen randomly at all. He then changed his mind after accepting the deal.
6: “United should go under for assaulting that passenger! Fire the entire crew!” Read the facts. United never touched the passenger. In fact, by all witness accounts, the United flight crew (layman term: pilots and flight attendants) remained calm and pleasant throughout the entire event, never laying hands on the passenger. They followed protocol as required by policy, no matter if it’s a good policy or not. Once law enforcement became involved (also as required by protocol), United stepped out of the decision-making process. They had nothing to do with the rest. The passenger was forcibly removed by aviation security (the very disturbing clip that everyone is talking about) after running back into the secured area after being escorted out once. Once he did that, like it or not, they (law enforcement) were under full discretion of the law to apply necessary force to remove the threat. I’m not saying it’s pretty, but the only one who actually broke a law was the passenger. There’s a reason for these laws–it’s called 9/11. I understand he’s npt a terrorist. I’m only explaining why these laws and policies exist. We can’t have it both ways. But by all means, let’s berate and punish an entire flight crew–in fact thousands of pilots, FA’s, gate attendents, ground crew, etc.–because it makes us all feel a little better.
7: “You piece of **it!” I get that the passengers were upset, angry, maybe even confused. I get that you are too. After all, media is tossing you out chunks of bloody meat like you’re a pack of starving wolves. But I’m seriously disgusted that the must ride crew that had to take those seats as well as aviation folks at airports around the nation after the unfortunate mess that unraveled have been verbally and physically assaulted and threatened. Can you imagine the very uncomfortable position they were in? doing their jobs to feed their families. Just. Like. You. They don’t have a choice. They didn’t ask for this. They didn’t assault anyone. They are not a corporation; they are individuals who need a job. There’s a very fine line between what you despise and becoming what you despise. Many of the comments and actions I have seen perpetrated against United employees cross it. Violence does not fix violence. Don’t become what you hate.
Like I said, I know you’re mad at United, but there’s much more to the story than hits the media fan.
I truly hope that this gives you something to chew on and gives you a smidgen more insight into the complexities of aviation. I’m not making excuses. I think there were bad decisions made on both sides. However, I am saying there are always two sides to every story. Make sure you consider them both.
***In answer to some questions: I am in no way affiliated with United Airlines. I have not been paid for this blog. My opinions are not reflective of any airline or even my husband. I write of my own volition. I never stated that United did not make serious customer service or human interaction mistakes. Of course they did! Of course they should have made adjustments before bording, offered more money, and found ways to diffuse the situation. Of course, no human should be assaulted. I called it terrible and appalling in the blog. My only intent was to explain the policy behind what happened and that they were not illegal. United (and other airlines) has scrutinized their policy and made some necessary changes since this blog was published. Those changes are not reflected above in the blog as they were not current policy at the time of event. Thanks.
***A correction to the previous article. Mr. Dao was indeed Vietnamese and not Chinese. That quote was verbatim from a comment off the internet. Also, it has come to light since this publication that the law enforcement officials were not federal. However, they are still not employed by United. I apology profusely for the confusion.
Angelia (A Pilot Wife)