There’s been a tremendous amount of debate the past few days over airline involuntary boarding policies, after a man was dragged off a United flight when he refused to give up his seat when instructed to do so by the airline.
Some people think United shouldn’t have flown crew (needed for another flight back to Chicago) in place of passengers. Others think that they should have had to pay whatever price customers asked in order to get volunteers to give up their seats.
I’ve maintained that the Chicago Aviation Police, who appeared to respond with too much force when called, deserve more of the blame for the incident than they’re getting. (One officer has been placed on leave. Update: Now all 3 responding officers have been placed on leave.) I have caveated this noting that we didn’t have video of what transpired before the passenger was dragged off, or what happened while he was off the plane (before returning, dripping with blood, mumbling “please kill me”).
Miles to Memories highlights video we hadn’t seen before of the disagreement between the doctor and a police officer, before the passenger is dragged off the flight and bloodied.
It shows a calm passenger staking out his position, refusing to leave the aircraft because he has to work in the morning. He says he’d “rather go to jail” than get off the aircraft. He certainly does not appear violent or threatening. And though the video is incomplete it’s certainly consistent with believing the police overreacted in their use of force.
Overall my concern is that disagreeing with an airline employee has been turned into a crime. A fellow BoardingArea blogger was once removed from a flight for taking photos in the cabin (though he was willing to delete them). Today in my Facebook feed a friend shared, “I asked a flight attendant “please not to jam another bag on top of mine.” I was literally asked by her “are you going to be a problem? Do i need to call the police?”
A New York Times piece today leads with my concern for how airline customer service problems quickly escalate to criminal problems.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around, not the least of which is the overall culture of aviation where customer service issues have become law enforcement issues,” said Gary Leff, author of the travel blog Viewfromthewing.com. “Rather than practicing de-escalation, any disagreement with the crew becomes seen as a threat.”
How the industry reached the unfriendly skies is a journey that goes back to 9/11, which ushered in greater security regulations and carry-on restrictions. In the aftermath of 9/11, “not following crew instructions immediately could be seen as a threat, and they take all threats seriously,” Mr. Leff said. “Airline employees are in positions of extreme power and authority.” Noting that not all crews are authoritarian, he added, “the emphasis has shifted.”
This needs to change. Oscar Munoz says United will no longer call the police on a customer with a valid boarding pass for a flight who doesn’t want to leave their seat. That’s a fairly limited claim, and we’ll see how it works out. But threats to call law enforcement happen all the time, escalating minor conflicts. That’s not normal, and it needs to stop.