United tied in knots.

Unless you have been under a rock, you have heard or read something about United Airlines. You, like I, probably have some thoughts and opinions about it as well. Here are some thoughts about it to try and help navigate the rhetoric and perhaps help understand how all of this happened. To try and do this, I am going to attempt to break down the four major players in this tragedy.

Let’s start with the gentleman who bought the ticket. First, whatever his past may or may not be, it really doesn’t matter. When we buy a plane ticket, we agree to a bunch of conditions that come with it. Those conditions vary somewhat between airlines, but are rather similar. This is commonly called a contract of carriage. While you may disagree with the contract, it is legal and the reality is that by purchasing the ticket, you agree to it. The gentleman on the flight agreed to this. When he chose not to vacate his seat as requested, he was in violation of this agreement. Agree with the contract or not, he was, at this point, a trespasser on private property. United kept it’s end of the contract and the gentleman did not. While a lot of people are talking about United being unethical in this, and maybe they were, the gentleman does not get a pass. If we, as Christians, are to believe our yes is yes, and our no is no, then the gentleman bears some blame here. He made an agreement and did not hold to it. Surely that is unethical. I want to be clear, that does not justify what happened to him. The force used against the gentleman was excessive by any reasonable measure. What is fair to say is that he had a part in creating the situation that led to this unfortunate event. Had he kept his word, that is to say lived up to the contractual agreement he made, this situation does not occur. No, this is not victim blaming. Yes, this is recognizing that the situation is not so simple as it may appear at first. He will file suit against both United and the City of Chicago.

Let’s continue with United Airlines. If we are being honest, United has a pretty bad record so far as service and satisfaction goes to begin with. For whatever reason, they just are not terribly good with people as a company it seems. The reality of this is that United operated within the regulations of the Department of Transportation and in accordance with their internal policies. The flight was not overbooked as was earlier thought (thank you inept United CEO). Four crew members for another flight needed to get to the destination. Because of this, four passengers would have to leave the plane. Reports vary, but somewhere between $800 and $1,000 in travel vouchers, and one report said other perks, such as first class on a later flight and hotel accommodations and meals. was offered for people to voluntarily leave the plane. At the very least, double the amount of the original ticket was offered as a travel voucher. No one took United up on it, so they used an algorithm they have developed to choose four people based on to many factors for me to list here. I’m not pretending that I understand how all those factors work, but it is what United chooses to do. Some have speculated that this was somehow about race, but there is absolutely no evidence of this. Everything is not racism, I promise. Three passengers chose to leave the plane without incident. The gentlemen in question was asked by United personnel several times to exit the plane. He refused. The authorities were called. It is here that our story about United ends, at least factually. It ends with United following the law.

Should United have offered more? I really don’t know. I think it would have been wise to. Delta Airlines bumps more people than United and manages to have less complaints due to the way that they handle things. They did however follow the guidelines given by the Department of Transportation. They are also suffering the horrible PR and the financial fallout from the choices that they made. I am with everyone else, I want companies to do “what is right” (which translates to what I think is right for all of us lol). I also realize that a company is going to do what it feels is best for their profit margin. In the service industry, that usually means good customer service, but it appears that United has a different model. United shares some of the blame here as well as their policies, in part, led to the situation that occurred.

The crew of that particular flight deserves a whole lot of credit. There is no reporting that I have seen that says they were anything other than polite and courteous in an awkward situation. They should be commended for that. When it became clear that the situation was not going to be resolved, they called the authorities to resolve the situation. That should have been a good thing. Don’t blame them for the poor policies at the top or the bad actions of the authorities that responded.

Our third player is The Department of Transportation. As a general rule, I think regulatory agencies are a bad move, and the DoT is no different. They do have some pretty good advice for air travelers on their webpage however. They also list the rules for bumping and the compensation one is usually entitled to. I mention the DoT because they are the regulatory agency that handles the airline industry setting the rules that must be followed. I am repeating this because there is some thought that United did something illegal here and they did not. They followed the law and the regulations set forth by the DoT. If you do not like these regulations, your ire is probably best directed toward congress and/or the DoT and not United. It is difficult to be angry at a company for following the rules that it has been given. If the rules need to change, so be it, but United is not going to be the vehicle for that. The DoT bears some of the blame here as their policies, in part, led to the situation that occurred.

Finally there are the authorities of the city of Chicago who dragged the man off the plane. The reports say that two showed up first asking the gentleman to leave the plane. He refused. A third came and asked and again a refusal. The officers then informed him that he had to leave by law and again a refusal. Then the force ensued. The force was excessive, the officers have been suspended, and there will be numerous investigations into the whole thing by the DoT, by Chicago, by United, and probably by congress. The police department in charge has said that the officers did not follow their established polices and procedures in this situation. While it is right to say that the force used by the three officers was excessive, it is wrong to say that it is the entire department. I want to be clear, the force was excessive. I want to be clear, this was a bad situation for the officers to be placed in. I want to be clear, the gentleman who was harmed was in the wrong. I want to be clear, the three officers share some of the blame here as their actions were excessive and caused unnecessary physical harm to someone.

The pattern with all of this is that none of the major players in this was right. Not one of them. Near as I can tell, the only people who were in the right was the flight crew. They have gotten no credit for the politeness and professionalism they showed. Near as I can tell the only player that acted within the law was United, and they are taking the majority of the heat for it. There is right and wrong, and I certainly understand that. I also understand that the best that we can expect realistically is for a company to act within the law. Yes, there are some companies, even large ones, that act with a consistent morality. Chick-fil-a and Hobby Lobby come to mind. You don’t have to agree with their morality but they act within it. Starbucks would fit this as well. For the most part however, we can only reasonably expect businesses to act within the law. It’s become easy to blame big business for every ill that occurs, but United did not act outside the law. A lot of people will say that they acted unethically, but I do not share their opinion.

At the end of all of this is that there is no one innocent here. There is plenty of blame to go around. It isn’t simple. The gentleman suffered excessive force and was harmed beyond what is reasonable. It’s easy to simply say he is a victim and leave it at that, but he contributed to the situation. From an ethics standpoint, he broke his word. It’s easy to blame United. They make a lot of money, they have poor customer service, etc. They did not lie. They did what was required by law. They offered at least twice the original value of the ticket. That seems fairly reasonable. This does not absolve them of their share of blame, but it’s not really so simple. It’s easy to blame the DoT. They have regulatory power over the airlines and the like, but really, it’s not realistic for them to anticipate every possible circumstance and regulate it. This doesn’t release them from their share of the blame either. It’s easy to blame the police, but they were in a bad situation to begin with. They keep their blame too. None of this is simple or easy. None of this has a simple or easy solution.   In reality it’s a lot like a Game of Thrones episode. There really aren’t any good guys, there are just the bad guys we choose to root for.

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4 Replies to “United tied in knots.”

  1. The laws of the “invisible hand” of the market should have been employed by United. $800 simply wasn’t enough money to convince a passenger to go through the “getting bumped” hassle. I bet a few more hundred dollars per ticket would have made the difference. Even if it approached $2000 per customer this is mere peanuts compared to what United will pay to keep this out of court and of course the loss of value in their stock.

    1. That may very well be. I don’t think it is our place to decide how much United places value though. That is their job. Our job is to decide the value that we place and then act accordingly. The invisible hand of Smith applied primarily to individuals though I think and not companies, so I am not so sure that it works here.
      If United says that the value of the voluntary ‘bump’ in this case was only $800, then so be it. That is their choice. Our choice is how we choose to respond to that. I don’t think that United or the Doctor on the flight acted well or even in their own self interest to be honest, further lessening the affect that the invisible hand can have here.

  2. Thanks for posting this. I am no lawyer of course, so keep that in mind here. The contract of carriage allows for airlines to set their own boarding policies and practices. In United’s terms of service that describe boarding practices, it has the “boarding” part of the experience as ending once the plane begins to leave toward the runway. The DoT in their annual audits also calls those passengers removed for causing a fuss once seated but before take off as being involuntarily denied boarding. This came up in another conversation also. It seems to be one of many ubiquitous terms that seem inevitable in regulatory language.
    Now, certainly passengers do have some protected ‘rights’, for lack of a better word. The question here is whether or not they were legally violated. I suspect this may indeed play out in court, but to be honest, the DoT has crafted the policies that have led to this because of a previous court case. The DoT outlines the terms in which a passenger may be removed or bumped due to overbooking. Aviation lawyer Thomas Janson has gone on record and said the necessary crew designated as “must fly” (by the airline of course), are covered by this regulation. So, it seems anyway, a lot of this is a case of dueling lawyers. So far as I can tell United acted within the law, or at the very least acted within their understanding of the law. Again, this is not to say it was the bet way to do things or even the right way to do things, but it seems to have been, at least potentially, the legal way to do things.

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