What happened on United Airlines Flight 3411 was an abuse of power

In amongst the maligning United Airlines has received for forcibly removing and assaulting a passenger who refused to give up his seat on Flight 3411, there has been a number of airline industry workers (executives, flight attendants) who have attempted to provide justification for the airline’s actions, in some instances even going as far as to attempt to absolve the airline of wrongdoing. It seems that many within the airline industry actually believe their own self-important rhetoric, perhaps have even become so oblivious to the power airlines wield that they are blind to an abuse of that power.

It has been said that it was aviation security who assaulted the man, not the airline staff. Putting aside the fact that not one staff member attempted to stop the assault, it was the airline that called in security, long before all other options had been exhausted. They saw force as an easier option than behaving reasonably and/or impacting their profits. 

The situation was not one involving overbooking, where an airline sells more tickets than are available because often people don’t turn up for flights. Rather, it involved four crew members who had been delayed on another flight, who needed to get to Louisville for a subsequent flight. Airline policy is that the crew must fly. 

The term “must” is both misleading and self-serving. There is no actual necessity that a crew get on a particular flight. It is in fact a preference of the airlines so as not to disrupt their schedules and eat into their profits. Of course it is important, because a subsequent cancelled flight will impact hundreds of passengers and may have a knock-on effect. However, this is the airline’s responsibility, and should not fall to individual paying passengers. 

United could have looked at paying for their crew to fly on another airline. They could have looked to bring in alternative staff in Louisville, or flown in other staff from elsewhere as needed. It was simply the cheapest and easiest option to deadhead them on Flight 3411. Further, if the airline regards it as a necessity that crew get on a flight in that situation they should reserve seats on all planes as a contingency. They won’t, because that will impact their profits. But they can’t claim necessity unless they are willing to exhaust themselves and their resources to accomplish it.

The airline then limited its offer of financial compensation to $800. A passenger has confirmed they offered to leave for $1600 and were dismissed by a laughing flight attendant. So United would rather force people off an airplane and resort to security measures than offer a bit of their own extra money. 

The airline has stated that their selection of passengers to remove was random. Most people have found this hard to believe (would they really remove a first or business class passenger over someone on a cheap ticket?) and a number of people in the industry have confirmed that there are policies in place for removal, such as those on the cheapest tickets and/or with carry-on only being removed first and keeping families together. 

Either way, it was at the airline’s discretion as to how this was handled. Upon hearing that the individual was a doctor and had patients to see – people whose health and wellbeing depended on him – they could have picked someone else. Whilst the airline should not have allowed this to happen to anyone, him being a doctor goes directly to the issue because that is why he refused to get off the flight. The decision to forcibly remove him is particularly disgusting in light of the fact that airlines often rely on doctors being on their flights when a medical emergency occurs. It’s apparently OK to call on them when the airline needs them, but not show any respect for their profession otherwise.

That the airline saw security as an easier option when it should be a last resort is demonstrative of their sense of power. Rather than provide training to their staff on how to manage a situation like that, or call in management to make a judgement when there is a dispute, they prefer intimidatory tactics. Because that is exactly what it was: even if the assault itself was security’s responsibility, the airline ignored any notion of reasonableness, dismissed the passenger’s circumstances and decided to intimidate him into getting off the plane. This is at best taking advantage of their power over people and at worst abusing it.

The terms and conditions imposed on tickets that have been used by the airline industry to justify the crew’s actions are a direct result of policies and procedures that are designed around protecting profits. To support those actions is to believe that a few thousand dollars to a big corporation is more important than dignity, respect and wellbeing. To agree with what happened supports the notion that security and force can be used to arbitrarily demand people do what they are told, and that reasonableness, especially the concept of reasonable force which is almost universally applicable, is irrelevant. To suggest the crew acted properly allows them to hide their lack of training, common sense and decency behind a veneer of entitlement. 

The verbal beating (pun intended) that United Airlines has received barely goes far enough to addressing what was unquestionably an abuse of power.

What happened on United Airlines Flight 3411 was an abuse of power

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