Underneath my yellow skin

Flying is Now a Gladiator Sport

There is a news item circulating around Twitter this morning about a man who was forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight. This is the tweet I saw:

I read the story with increasing incredulity because it sounds like something straight out of a dystopian universe, albeit a genteel one. The flight was overbooked, and United asked for volunteers to fly at another time after everyone was already seated. There were United Airline employees who needed to be in Louisville for a flight. The volunteers would be compensated with $400 and and overnight hotel stay. No one volunteered even after they upped the compensation to $800, so they said four people would be selected by a computer. This is all from the account of a fellow passenger who witnessed the incident, recorded the video, and uploaded it to the internet.

One couple left when their name was called, but one man refused, saying he was a doctor who had to see patients in the morning. A security guard came to talk to him, then a second one, then a third. Next thing you know, they are forcibly removing him from the plane. Apparently, he hit his head, screamed, and then you see one guard forcibly dragging the man off the plane. It’s in the tweet above, and be forewarned, it’s disturbing and appalling. What’s even worse was United’s explanation. After saying they were overbooked, the spokesperson went on to say (as per the link above), “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.” Apparently, this person does not know the meaning of the word ‘voluntarily’ because this statement is ludicrous.

The CEO of United, in heavy spin control, had this to say:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

I retweeted this with ‘re-accommodate’ in quotes to convey my disgust. This is one of those weaselly words used to disguise what it actually happening. The man wasn’t re-accommodated; he was forcibly dragged down the aisle of the plane when he wouldn’t leave. Secondly, the only reason the CEO cares is because it was caught on video. I have no doubt if there wasn’t a video of the incident, this would have come and gone with much less of an uproar. They’re not concerned about the shoddy treatment of the customer; they’re concerned about damage control because they were caught on video doing it.

My own tweet on the subject was this:

Followed up with this GIF:

This incident is getting a lot of negative press, and rightly so. I hope the man sues the pants off United Airlines and gets free flights for the rest of his life. More details have been released, such as the man reportedly thought he was being chosen because he was Chinese. He rushed back on the flight, bloodied, dazed, and confused, saying he had to get home, and he was taken out on a stretcher.

Here’s the thing. I’m all for excoriating United up and down the mean streets of Twitter until they beg for mercy. Their handling of the situation was abominable, horrifying, and way the fuck out of line. Yes, they were within their legal rights to do what they did, but on a moral level, this is unacceptable. Plus, it’s a stark look at the creeping militarization of our police/security guards. These people actually thought the right response to the situation was to drag the man off the plane. That’s such an overreaction, I can’t even explain how gross it makes me feel.  That is not the point to this post, however, so I will set it aside with great difficulty. However, this is just a symptom of a deeper, systemic problem in the flying industry, and, to a certain extent, our society in general.

We have a striated society with an unspoken caste system. Ian tweeted an article from Yahoo! Finance that explained the method United (and probably other airlines) use to choose who gets booted from an overbooked flight. You won’t be surprised to learn that if you pay more or are a valued customer–platinum, gold, silver, titanium, plutonium, etc.–you’re less likely to be chosen ‘by the computer’ to leave a flight. In fact, it’s amusing in a macabre way how the gate attendant gushes about their preferred customers as you’re about to board a flight, practically licking their boots while reminding us plebes to wait in the pen until we’re herded onto the plane.

I’m sure anyone who’s flown recently has noticed the incremental implementation of fees that used to come standard with your airline ticket. One, a checked bag. In the old days, you used to be able to check one bag for free, regardless. Now, many airlines charge you for your first bag. Two, faster security lines. Yes, you now can pay to be ‘pre-approved’ so you can zip through security lines. Three, for a period of time (not sure they’re still doing it), you could pay a fee to de-plane first. Four, if you buy an economy ticket, at least on Delta, you don’t get to choose your own seat. If you do early check-in, you can change the seat–if there’s any non-preference seat available. Five, no meals–only a packet of peanuts, cookies, or pretzels with a small cup of a beverage non-alcoholic. They do sell food boxes, or did at one point, if you need to eat before de-planing. Six, they board the plane in the most inefficient way possible. I think this has always been the case, but it’s even more glaring now. They allow all the premium flyers to board first, and then they start boarding in zones, front to back. Any fool can see that the best way to board would be back to front, but then the plebes would think they’re actually worthy of flying!

Let’s not even mention the elephant in the room–fluctuating airline prices. I know the stated reason for this is ostensibly because they’re based on variances in oil prices. However, we all know this is bullshit for several reasons. One, gas prices do not go up and down every day. Imagine how people would riot if this were the case. Two, any frequent flyer knows if you book a ticket months ahead of time or the day before you fly, you can get a great deal. The latter is because they want to fill the flights, so they offer steep discounts at the last minute. The problem is, of course, you risk missing your flight if you wait until the last minute. In addition, fares are different based on from where you’re flying and to where you’re going. While there is an argument to be made about supply and demand in this instance, it has nothing to do with oil prices.

Think of any other business that is this blatant about their contempt for their customers. I can’t think of one off-hand (ETA: Cable companies. I can’t believe I didn’t include them), and it’s astounding how much we’ve accepted this as just the way airlines do their business. We all know we’re getting screwed when we fly in one way or the other. Either you pay a ridiculous amount and get treated like royalty, or you try to find a reasonable fare, and you’re considered expendable. Airlines can hold you hostage in a way that other businesses simply cannot, in part because there are such limited choices. In addition, if I’m stranded in a city somewhere desperate to get home, I’m a prime candidate for fleecing. There is no recourse for being treated shittily on a flight, at least not yet.

As I’m writing this, the man who dragged the doctor off the flight has been placed on leave, according to the Chicago Aviation Department. This is good because this man has to be held accountable for his actions, but it’s a symptom to the disease and not the problem itself. The problem is that the airline companies are thugs who are beholden to no one, and they’re allowed to dictate the terms of their service to an unreasonable degree. Anyone who flies economy class knows this to be true. This incident just underscores how terrible the industry is as a whole, and how we, the public, have slowly become acclimated to the shittiness.

United Airlines has been rightly lambasted on Twitter over this incident. Even Merriam-Webster has gotten in on it, including this tweet/post on the topic:

The post is nothing but shade for United Airlines, and I am here for it. What I’m hoping for, though, is that this doesn’t just blow over in a day or two with business going back to normal. I want United to suffer a massive PR hit (and they already have), but I also want decent flying conditions for everyone. I know it’s idealistic of me because what’s happening in the airline industry simply reflects our morality as a society, but baby steps, my friends. Baby steps.


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