Considering the Death Threats I Got, This Writer Is In For Real Trouble Over His United Views

The first time I ever got a death threat over a blog post I wrote it was about a laptop bag. Years later I still love my Tom Binh Checkpoint Flyer, though it’s no longer available for sale. Ironically, the threats came from Tom Binh supporters.

I said it was a great bag, my enthusiasm was for the bag itself and not because it was manufactured in America which the company promotes. And that brought out an incredible amount of vitriol that 7 years ago I hadn’t ever experienced.

At this point, though, e-mailing threats to me is practically de rigueur. Over the years I’ve learned that writing on the internet means having to don a thermal radiation aluminized suit. Among the tamer correspondence I’ve received this week was someone who wrote, “I saw the article you wrote on United… just hang yourself.”

The story of a United passenger being dragged off a flight from Chicago to Louisville, and bloodied by airport police, brought out passions worldwide.

  • United certainly ‘created’ the situation, and it was a very bad situation. The videos are excruciating to watch.
  • I’ve argued that the airport police — all 3 of which have now been placed on leave — weren’t getting enough of the blame for how they handled the situation.
  • And I’ve argued that the culture at US airlines of turning customer service problems into law enforcement issues needs to change.

We still don’t know at what point it was determined crew needed to be sent to Louisville, and as a result why it wasn’t communicated to the gate agent prior to boarding. This may be the airline’s biggest screw up before calling the cops.

However writing that deviates from the narrative that United is wholly at fault brings out both thoughtful arguments (from some) and incredible vitriol (from many). Defending ‘overbooking’ and noting that involuntary denied boardings are on the decline even as planes are more full, and that recently JetBlue which doesn’t overbook has had more involuntary denied boardings than United, offends many.

So I’m going to strongly recommend that Ted Reed flee to a secure undisclosed location after writing “United Airlines Was Found Guilty in the Court of Twitter — But It’s Innocent”

The flight wasn’t overbooked, despite the outcry regarding airline overbooking. United has the right to ask passengers to give up their seats on flights. It must compensate them and report the event to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such events are extremely rare — about two for every 20,000 passengers in the fourth quarter. But they happen.

Also, United didn’t drag anybody off an aircraft — this was done by three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers. They have all been suspended.

Essentially, United is guilty of calling the police.

Which is, of course, the point United called the police on a customer who had a boarding pass for the seat he was in and was guilty of insisting that he should be able to fly on the ticket he purchased from United. Even to the extent that United has the legal right to substitute ‘must ride’ employees for passengers, calling the police on a passenger is precisely the problem and needs to stop. United CEO Oscar Munoz now says the airline won’t call the police in this situation.

Reed cites Oscar Munoz’s earlier statement that the passenger “raised his voice” and that he “became more and more disruptive and belligerent” — something even Munoz has backed off from and something inconsistent with video of the passenger’s interaction with police which shows him firm but calm.


United CEO Oscar Munoz in the Chicago Polaris Lounge

I still blame the culture that’s not unique to United which led Munoz to say at one point that “agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation security officers” and the officers themselves who reacted with too much force.

United would of course have been better off had they offered more than $800 plus a hotel night to get passengers to voluntarily give up their seat for crew needed to operate another flight. It’s not clear how much would have been enough.

Involuntary denied boardings are sometimes necessary, the game theory here is fascinating, as are the moral questions of whether this ought to be considered a situation where the airline didn’t have enough seats on the plane for passengers or whether they were serving their own needs by moving crew so as not to cancel a different flight — or they were acting for the greatest good (they believed) in ensuring they didn’t have to cancel the travel plans of many more passengers downline.

Regardless, though I disagree with Ted Reed’s take I don’t envy the crushing reaction sure to come his way for expressing it.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I’m saddened you didn’t link to your piece where you dredge up the passenger’s “lurid” past in an effort to defame him and make it seem like he deserved such treatment.

    That sure was a shining example of your best work.

    Save the self-pity, Gary. Sometimes people deserve the criticism.

  2. Surprising you haven’t yet mentioned the man’s injuries. Broken nose, lost teeth, concussion. Was his past relevant, but this not relevant yet?

  3. @Ben I have mentioned injuries from the beginning, I am not sure that broken teeth vs nose are that enlightening, I have a hard enough time envisioning the blood in that video, I cringe thinking about it.

  4. Brian, no self pity here. I’m curious, two days ago you wrote “I’ve unsubscribed this site from my RSS feed and won’t be visiting this place again.”

  5. NOTHING justifies the insults, racism, and vitriol I have read on this site since UA3411 made the news; and certainly nothing warrants sending anyone “death threats.” That not only saddens me personally, but frightens me for our social fabric at large.

    THIS IS EXACTLY WHY many bulletin boards *require* people to use their real names, and some “slick nick” . . .

  6. Much of the flak you’ve gotten is because you didn’t interact as much as you normally do to defend yourself. You also should clarify why you took down the smear which the yellow NY Post printed about the victim. Is it true it was another guy with the same name?

    As we learned with Trump the third of U.S. who are unredeemed racist rednecks won’t listen to any facts anyway that don’t support their morbidly obese prejudices. These are viewed worldwide as the stupidest people on the planet who have ruined the U.S. democracy making us like 1960’s Mississippi where they mentally waddle. Join all decent humanity in being proud of their disapproval, the lowest scum on earth.

  7. @Gary
    You’re right, shame on me. I stopped by to see if you had made an apology. You didn’t. I won’t be back.

  8. Keep on Gary. These trolls just love to be trolls. All that poor nitwit needed to do was get up when the cops arrived. Anyone suggesting what that nimrod did was smart or the right thing to do is a blithering idiot. Disobeying a cop, regardless of who is right, is an idiotic decision. The cop always wins in the moment. Citizens might have a small chance in the so-called Justice.System at a later date

    I think this might wake up some to what too-often happens when there’s a confrontation with police. A broken nose and a few lost teeth are a good outcome – imagine if the guy were black or a Muslim…

  9. I believe people are overthinking the situation: it is nothing more than Economics 101. Scarcity existed, and there are different ways to determine who should have gotten the seats, and who didn’t. This incident actually be a good example to use in an Economics course to explain the different economic systems, and how the situation would have unfolded in each of them.

  10. Death threats, Gary?

    Well, at least I never received one of those at The Gate — and you should not be receiving them either…

    …but if Ted Reed does receive any vitriol, it will not be through the Comments section of his article, as there is no way to publicly comment on it.

    Unfortunately, there is a reason why more and more media outlets and weblogs no longer have a Comments section…

  11. @Greg – “Is it true it was another guy with the same name?”

    No, it’s not true – the Los Angeles Times debunked that rumor yesterday.

  12. You still keep calling this a denied boarding. I think there is a real argument that since he was already boarded on to the plane and in his seat that it is in fact a refusal to transport. A refusal to transport has different criteria and in that situation it appears that united did not have legal grounds to remove him from his seat. people keep glossing over this but its wrong to just assume united had a legal right to remove him.

  13. Sorry to read that you are getting death threats– that isn’t right either. But thank you for all your articles on this situation. It is upsetting and things need to change.

    I think you and Ted Reed are potentially overlooking a detail when you try to absolve UA and put most of the blame on Chicago Aviation officers. If you feel the Chicago Aviation officers used excessive force and overreacted, WHY do you think they reacted that way? Have you asked this question with enough depth?

    That sort of force is allowable when there is a violent drunk person on the plane who needs to removed ASAP. It is also allowable if there is someone making violent terrorist threats.

    So again, WHY do you think the Chicago Aviation officers used so much force in handling this 69 year old person? A likely scenario that occurs to me is because of what United Airlines told them. Did they misrepresent the situation and make it sound more physically violent and physically threatening than it really was? Who from United Airlines was physically harmed? Who was being physically threatened by this man? Bigger questions, did United Airlines lie about the behavior of this man? There are many, many witnesses on the plane, some of them who were quite eager to tell this story, and I wouldn’t be surprised, would be willing to testify in court about what they saw.

    I just don’t think this situation is as simple as excessive force by the officers– I am willing to bet that United Airlines had something to do with leading them to believe that a violent physical response was needed.

  14. @Teresa I do wonder what they told the police. Apparently this man needs reconstructive surgery die to a broken nose and having two teeth knocked out. It sounds like extremely excessive force. I also wonder what was in all those police reports and airline reports. Both the police and United CEO said things that the videos show are completely false.

  15. “As we learned with Trump the third of U.S. who are unredeemed racist rednecks won’t listen to any facts anyway that don’t support their morbidly obese prejudices. These are viewed worldwide as the stupidest people on the planet who have ruined the U.S. democracy making us like 1960’s Mississippi where they mentally waddle. Join all decent humanity in being proud of their disapproval, the lowest scum on earth.”

    The irony of this and other similar hate-filled posts I’ve read on other sites is astounding, but maybe it’s acceptable to hate people for how that voted rather than for their race. In any event, this is the most overblown, overpublished incident I can recall. While I would have been upset to be asked to deplane, I never would have refused, particularly to the police. His foolish and high-risk decisions triggered his injuries. I have no sympathy for him at all. Now he has hired one of the top PI firms in Chicago as his litigation lottery ticket. The day he got pulled off that plane will end up being the best and most lucrative day of his life. With 20/20 hindsight, the man is a genius. I guess that does make me stupidest person on the planet, because maybe if made foolish high-risk decisions, I’d be rich too..

  16. @Pat remember to build in transaction costs into your model, there are significant costs to any system that takes much time as the plane is trying to get out. There are huge costs to even a few minutes of delay.

  17. The moment United asked him to leave the plane and he refused, legally speaking he became a trespasser. And police forces are authorized to forcibly remove persons trespassing on private property. To suggest that they don’t have that authority or that they shouldn’t have that authority is to disregard the rule of law. What’s the alternative?

    This guy was a trespasser, plain and simple. Had he complied with the wishes of the owners of the property he was occupying, or, more importantly, the police, this issue wouldn’t have arisen.

    I simply can’t understand why there’s so much sympathy for this guy…

  18. For those who have no sympathy with a guy who bought a ticket, was seated on board (on time, as he is required lest United invalidate his ticket), was asked to volunteer, declined, and was subsequently beaten by police to get him to comply, police who acted solely in the interest of the company at every turn, I ask: what is wrong with you people?

  19. @Bradley Sorry but I do not think it is that obvious. It seems very possible that United was in complete breach of their agreement in forcing him off the plane once he had been allowed to board. There are likely also DOT restrictions that apply. People need to realize that airlines don’t have absolute power. The man did NOTHING wrong that would warrant removal from his paid seat other than the fact that United wanted the seat for their staff. Maybe a jury will see it differently, but as is I think it is quite possible that United is totally in the wrong here legally. Some commentators want to act like this is an open and shut right of the airline, but it seems like a grey area at best for the airline.

  20. @Joe I agree. I really don’t understand the people who don’t have any sympathy for the guy. He did nothing violent yet he was dragged out of a seat he paid for by force and had his nose broken and teeth knocked out. I’m sure they would feel differently if this happened to them and that is the scary thing. This could happen to anybody.

  21. Gary, I wanted to share a different perspective on some of what may have gone down in Chicago the other night. You mention that the four members of the flight crew that were responsible for the removal of paying passengers were “crew (that) needed to be sent to Louisville”. While you didn’t mention it in today’s update, I’ve heard it repeated multiple times in the last few days that the crew was being sent to work another flight (the next morning) and that not to have sent them would have disrupted subsequent service. That may or may not be true.

    I question the premise because a flight attendance acquaintance of mine with strong familiarity with the Republic Airlines (aka, United Express) flight attendant contract insists that crew have a provision of their contract that is unique from, say, United or American mainline crews. Specifically, their contract allows them “space positive” when commuting to or from their base (apparently, even at a moment’s notice). A potential scenario that could occur as a result of such a crew contract provision might go something like this….

    ….A Republic Airlines crew arrives into Chicago EARLY one recent evening on the last leg of their UX trip. Some of them are Louisville-domiciled commuters who had already been granted space-positive seats on a flight back home to Louisville later that night. But because their inbound flight into ORD was early, they were able to make it to the gate to catch an earlier ORD-SDF flight. Upon arriving at that gate, a UA gate agent informs them the flight has already boarded and is full, and that they were not granted space-positive on that flight. The crew then insists that based on their contract they are (even as commuters) guaranteed space-positive back home and they demand that the gate agent deplane passengers to accommodate them. (S)he refuses, so the crew then insist that their Republic base manager/supervisor in Chicago be called, and that supervisor (bound by the contract to honor this request) rushes to the gate and insists that the UA agent deplane enough passengers to accommodate the Republic crew. Unlike what’s been “reported”, the crew may not have been required to get to Louisville to work another flight, but instead were simply entitled by their contract to get to Louisville on whatever flight they wanted and, in the process of doing so, created a nightmare one recent evening.

    To be clear, I’m not saying this is what happened. There are many potential variations on this story, all of which might be the truth. Or, it may be that this is not what happened at all. I only point out this scenario for two reasons: (1) the facts are still coming out–perhaps never fully out, at least publicly–and folks should be careful to jump to conclusions before a full investigation, and (2) there are many vagaries to every different union contract that most people outside of the industry will never understand or know. To be transparent, I’m generally a supporter of union rights (and married to a mainline legacy carrier crewmember), but I also know that Republic is a very different animal than UA/AA/DL (though DL is not unionized from a FA perspective) when it comes to contracts.

    As many in the industry would say (in this case about United Airlines’ relationship to Republic Airlines)….”you live by the codeshare, you die by the codeshare”. In this case, United may have at the least just gotten burned by the conditions of Republic’s crew contract. Ouch.

  22. Gary
    I have found your post informative and agree with you that the culture must change. I hope this episode with have an effect on that.

    What troubles me is the fact that you intitially placed some of the blame/fault on the passsenger since none of this would have happened if he had simply listened to authority. You have never retracted that statement when other have offered a mea culpa.

    Do you really believe resistence against what many of us feel to be an unjust situation wrong or at fault? Do you believe the changes happening to united would have occurred if he had simply called complied? Are we not better off since he resisted?

  23. The two types defending united are the same ones supporting trump.

    1. Entitled, educated, unethical people who know they are unlikely to be kicked out to start with.
    2. Ignorant, uneducated hillbillies who repeatedly advocate against their own self interests.

    But all is fine, is this day and age of trump alternate reality, all united has to do is deny that videos exist or claim they are fake.

    It is this simple to manipulate ignorant deplorables.

    And yes, death threat is their way of resolving conflicts.

  24. @Cl –

    I think United screwed up bigtime in ways that led them to an involuntary denied boarding, but once they were in that position and knowing full well they were screwing this passenger I think they had the stronger legal position and that it was inadvisable for the passenger to refuse to get off the aircraft.

    That’s not blaming the passenger for excessive force. I believe that calling the cops was the wrong answer. And I have said since Monday that the cops have been getting too much of a pass for excessive use of force.

    I think the cops and United share the blame here for how this played out. That doesn’t mean I think the passenger was right to refuse to give up his seat.

  25. Gary, I saw your interview on the BBC and I was appalled. No empathy for the victim, in fact he’s the first party you refer to as having some blame; but you appear to have plenty of empathy for United, when you stated, “United has received more than its fair share of blame”. I’m sure you’ve had some time to reflect since United’s CEO has finally issued an apology that could be considered as partially contrite. Please stick to your day job of working with Nobel prize winning elites and advising the House of Representatives (as you brag in your bio). No emotional intelligence required for dealing with those folks.

  26. @Mark Anderson — You left the same comment on another post. As I shared there, I am blaming the police response / use of force as much as United, and both more than the passenger who did not create the situation nor the response to the situation.

  27. Gary initially only blamed the passenger and he doesnt have the gumption to own up to his mistake. Gary also dredged up the customers past to victim shame. Guess what, no gumption to come out and apologise.
    Gary has no empathy for the pax in question as Gary has elite status and elites are low down on the “Lets kick you off the plane” list.
    Gary sits at the front of the plane. His entitled opinion allows him to claim that those in the back deserve their treatment. NB : Gary subtly changed his tune when he realised hes on the wrong side of history

  28. I disagree that the airport police should receive any blame. It was United that called them and told them this passenger needed to be removed from the plane. The police tried to get him to exit peacefully but after that failed, what were they suppose to do? The doctor was resisting and they didn’t intend for him to hit his head. Using a stun gun or pointing a real gun at him would be excessive but they simply did their job the best they could.

    I blame the passenger for refusing to obey the police which should involve some type of citation. But mostly, I blame United. They boarded the passenger with a valid boarding pass. No mistake was made and there was no plane change, weather problem, or other IROP. United’s delay in boarding the extra crew was their mistake and there should only have been voluntary bumping once the plane was fully boarded. In this case, United should have upped their offer and considered seating the crew in any available jumpseats for this short flight.

  29. Hi Gary,
    From what I’ve heard, Dr. Dao initially volunteered to get off and then changed his mind when he learned he wouldn’t be able to get on another flight until 2:30pm (if this part is not true, it kind of makes the rest moot, so let me know).

    At that point, the flight went to involuntary denied boarding (deplaning in this case). So is it just a coincidence that Dr. Dao had initially volunteered to get off then changed his mind AND he happened to be among the 4 people who had paid the least for their ticket/checked in the latest?

    If United targeted him for involuntary denied boarding simply because he had initially volunteered but he was NOT among the 4 people who paid the lowest fare for their ticket/checked in latest, would United be at fault for not following their own guidelines? And, are these merely suggestions? Do crew/gate agents get to pick people outside of these guidelines?

    Thanks, and hopefully you see this because I’d love to hear your opinion.

  30. @Ben there is nothing at all to suggest that United deviated from its published denied boarding priority list. If they did that’ll come out in the DOT investigation, but as I say no evidence at this point.

  31. I have a different outlook about assigning responsibility . Quite simply it was United’s responsibility .
    If Republic was at fault , they were operating under direction of United . If the Aviation police are to blame , they were summoned by Republic who should have been better managed by United .
    All legal and technical arguments are irrelevant from the standpoint of human decency . It was not fair to arbitrarily order the passenger to vacate the seat he had paid for . The brutal treatment of an elderly person was definitely not justified .
    As others have written , the amount of compensation should have been increased as necessary for the desired result . A basic case of supply and demand : the passengers had the supply , the price should have been raised accordingly .
    As to some other issues mentioned : insults , vile language , threats over something written on the internet are completely absurd . You disgrace yourselves by this behavior .
    It is also a stretch to blame this on u-know-who . I don’t know that he has any hand in the management of United .
    Maybe …maybe… maybe this will result in clarification of rights and responsibilities rationally discussed .

  32. So with the delay from physically attacking a customer, was that flight that the 4 employees were going to fly delayed or cancelled anyway? No one has said that I’ve seen. So could have avoided all this bad publicity (including old stories coming out again) with same result? How do these yahoos stay in business?

  33. united united us! i keep shorting ual stock and so far so good. It will never recover, and it deserves it!

  34. I love all you bleeding Heart liberal cry babies. Please follow up on your promise to no longer fly on United. Makes it easier for me to secure that Exit Row Isle seat.

    As far as all the reported injuries sustained by the pervert who lost his medical license for exchanging drugs for sexual favors (one of the perpetrators of the US heroin epidemic), another great job by the Drive By lawyer team locking in the right MD.

  35. Gary, unfortunately you’ve lost some credibility with me. Your responses have seemed to toe the United lines. The your responses seemed to have changed as public sentiment did. That being said, I think you enjoy your United perks too much to risk being on the wrong side of United management.

    United’s poor business model and decisions led to this event. Air transportation needn’t be an adversarial relationship between company and passenger. There needs to a continuing culture change at United and the other airlines companies. Airlines need to see transport as a cooperative effort between airlines and their passengers.

  36. Some of the comments ring true, and I must say you also seem to be getting a ton of mileage out of this, including TV time.

  37. “they were acting for the greatest good (they believed) in ensuring they didn’t have to cancel the travel plans of many more passengers downline.”

    This is essentially a utilitarian argument. In an earlier post you expressed the thesis with admirable clarity. (‘utilitarian’ referring to a branch of ethics developed in 19th century Britain. ‘Utilitarianism’ by John Stuart Mill is the usual source.) I agree that both overbooking and bumping increase transport efficiency and the overall utility – the greatest good – of airline passengers. However, the principle of utility also applies in the choice of who gets bumped. UAL picked a doctor with a patient schedule on Monday morning, probably not the best choice from a utilitarian point of view.

    So who should UAL have bumped? The answer is passengers whose removal will do the least harm. Given the data available, UAL cannot know who that is in some set of passengers. However, a compensation auction to take another flight does remove from the flight those who will accept the least value to fly another day, which is likely a decent proxy for least harm.

    The case you make against a compensation auction is, at least from my point of view, pretty weak. All airlines initiate voucher auctions to find bump volunteers. The auctions are inefficient because the airlines are cheap. (The airlines are cheap because they know they can legally compel passengers to leave a plane.) Vouchers are a poor substitute for cash. For most passengers, a voucher is worthless, so they sit out the auction, much reducing the number of possible voluntary bumps.

    (I was several years back booked on an overbooked flight looking for volunteers to take a later plane. The best offer was a flight voucher worth about $500 and good for a year. I had no flight plans in the coming year so to me the voucher had no value.)

    Bump auctions can be fast and efficient, but an airline cannot low ball the offers and expect a fast, efficient process. Moreover, the airlines are kind of stuck. There is no better method, no other method is probably also true, for doing the least harm in choosing who is bumped. But, as long as airlines low ball compensation and are not committed to doing as little harm as possible in bumping passengers, I cannot see why passengers should go along with involuntary bumping because such is required on occasion to do the greatest good.

    I agree that the Chicago Aviation Police acted poorly, but UAL should be offering cash compensation for being bumped. As long as all they offer are vouchers, they are not serious about finding volunteers. This is the heart of the issue.

  38. More exaggeration by Gary. Someone telling you to “just hang yourself” is NOT a death threat. They are merely hoping for your death.

    I agree with the previous poster on your self-pity angle.

  39. @Ed funny how you don’t read and realize that wasn’t the threat, just my favorite email, glad to hear you rather endorse the notion of hoping for my death quite, and a pleasant week to you sir!

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