Viral post on brutal takedown of a United Airlines passenger is a must read

Jim Mathews, in a FB post, on how the incident is a symptom of what we have become as a people.

 |  6-minute read |   12-04-2017
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As a guy who was editor-in-chief of Aviation Daily (the airline business daily) for eight years, a lot of my friends have asked for my “take” on the brutal takedown video of a United passenger in Chicago. Before I give you that perspective, however, I think it’s illuminating to see how many people are looking for airline-related expertise to discuss this issue at all.

As if there’s some magic, aviation-related secret rule that makes brutality against paying customers okay.

But if you insist, yes first off, this is a "thing". It’s called Involuntary Denied Boarding and back in the day when we all used paper tickets instead of QR codes on smartphones, it was there on the back of the ticket stock in the fine print we would all read out of sheer boredom waiting to taxi. In extraordinary circumstances, the airline can deny you boarding, for compensation.

Today by federal law that compensation is limited to $1,350…which United’s Chicago folks evidently never even got to before calling the airport police.

Whether in one-on-one interactions or in conflicts involving nations, there are always decision points in which one or both parties can choose to escalate or de-escalate. United had options which it simply did not pursue, choosing instead to jump the decision tree to the very end and endorse violent removal of a passenger because, in Oscar Munoz’s words, he “raised his voice and refused to comply with crewmember directions.”

Even without assessing the validity of that passenger’s story (more on that in a minute) the most troubling thing to me about this entire interaction is the endorsement of violent solutions to everyday problems.

So, he raised his voice. Everyone reading this post has raised his or her voice at some time. He was angry…justifiably so, since he had paid his fare and was seated in his assigned seat.

But let’s pretend for the sake of discussion that he was not justified in being angry; he was just a 69-year-old man just trying to get home. At worst, he was a nuisance, not a threat. And this is where United went the most wrong.

We’re told that United overbooked the flight (a somewhat common occurrence) and that they had to get a flight crew on that airplane to avoid cancelling yet another flight in another location (less common, but still happens). Given these facts, this passenger’s predicament effectively was created by United overbooking and fouling up its dispatching and crew-scheduling.

Airlines have tools in these situations. They can continue to offer higher compensation until someone bites: I’m sure someone would have gone for $1,350 – they stopped the bidding 41 per cent short of where they were capped. They could have sought help from other airlines, who routinely accommodate in these kinds of situations as a kind of “treaty” among professionals.

Or, they even might have decided to eat the $30K-$40K they might have had to absorb to cancel the flight to which the crew was headed. A lot of money, to be sure, but mistakes cost businesses money every day.

Instead, impatience with a nuisance led the personnel on site to jump straight to police involvement for a passenger who was noisy, adamant but not violent or armed… and in point of fact, had every right to be irate.

Once the airport police were called, we saw a replay of the “Comply or Die” dynamic that has been sadly repeated thousands of times each year in this country when citizens interact with police. Instead of talking the man down, explaining that he was legally required at that point to leave the aircraft, and taking the time – yes, that precious “time is money” time – to de-escalate this situation appropriately, the officer went straight to violence. On a 69-year-old man. Who paid his fare. And was not armed.

The penalty now for raising your voice is assault. Good to know.

The reaction I find most puzzling is from my friends who say things like “well, that’s the law. He should have complied with the instruction.” As if the existence of that law justifies ANY level of retaliation of the officer’s choosing, in proportion or out of proportion. It’s not a lot different from “well, she dressed provocatively, what did she expect?”

I don’t think anyone who is a) not brandishing a weapon, b) not physically attacking anyone, and c) has paid a fare and been assigned a seat ought to “expect” to get bloodied and beaten for protesting shoddy treatment as a customer.

As I said elsewhere on the Intertubes this morning, I spent 13 years on the street as a first responder, but as a firefighter/medic I didn't get to tase or punch patients who gave me a hard time. If I truly felt threatened I could get on the radio and ask for help, which we only had to do once or twice, when we were taking care of kids who had their hands cut off by MS-13 gangbangers. MS-13 doesn't take kindly to us fixing their handiwork.

I had plenty of belligerent, drunk or drug-addled patients, some of whom took a swing at me, but what we learned in the fire academy and on the street was how to talk people down and de-escalate situations.

Today we're in a world where it's okay for officers to show up at a home in Pierre, SD, and tase an eight-year-old girl for having a tantrum. You really want my take? If you're a cop, sometimes people resist arrest. You have a gun, a taser, a plate-carrier vest and a badge and training in combatives. A snotty screaming person is a nuisance, not a threat.

And Oscar M? Companies live their values through the actions of their front-line employees. Faced with the choice of a $40K cost – which United imposed on itself by screwing up – or endorsing the violent assault of an angry but otherwise innocent paying customer, United chose violence.

Strictly business, you might say. Well, given what’s happened to United’s stock this morning, and the thousands of people – including those with frequent-flyer status – who have told United to go pound sand, maybe violence was the wrong business choice?

The real issue is not United; this is a symptom of what we have become as a people. We have accepted the notion that any transgression or infraction, no matter how trivial, legitimately subjects the transgressor to the threat of violence or even death.

United has thrown its lot in with that crowd. I will not participate.

(This post first appeared on Jim Mathews' Facebook page.)

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