United’s Unfriendly Skies

This article originally appeared on this site.

More than just a customer-service absurdity, the incident aboard United Flight 3411 points to the failings of America's infrastructure.More than just a customer-service absurdity, the incident aboard United Flight 3411 points to the failings of America’s infrastructure.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY NAM Y. HUH / AP

“That is just not right,” a woman on board United Flight 3411, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, said, when two members of the police department began tugging an older, Asian man from his seat. Seconds later, as captured in a video recorded by another passenger, her cries (“My God, what are you doing?”), along with those of the man and of others on the plane, became more urgent, as the deputies pulled him up and, without pausing to register that they had banged his head on an armrest, dragged him down the aisle. The man’s shirt is pulled up, exposing his stomach: his dignity got as little consideration from the authorities as did his safety, or the fact that he had a ticket. The woman screamed, “No, this is wrong! Oh, my God, look at what you did to him!” The officers didn’t seem to notice that there was blood on his face, although the sight of it made a man next to the woman recoil and bury his head in his hands, and elicited an untranscribable gasp from a third passenger.

What happened on Flight 3411, which was scheduled to fly from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky? United overbooked it; that happens all the time. The airline let everybody board, and then decided that it needed four more seats to get some crew members to Louisville for work the next morning. In the real, non-airline world, where markets function, there would be some recognition that United couldn’t just give those crew members something that it had already sold to someone else, namely, a seat on the plane. United is an airline, a logistics company, in contact with other airlines—and in a better position than most to find a backup when a flight is full. Or it could have just offered to pay ticket holders a price that they viewed as worthwhile to get off. Theoretically, that price might have been astronomical, higher than the cost to United of not having the crew in Louisville, in which case it might have looked for other options, like a car. (“Can’t the pilots drive to Louisville?” the woman asked. It would have taken five or six hours but still, in retrospect, would have been better for all concerned.) But we’ll never know, since, after offering an eight-hundred-dollar flight voucher, and maybe a hotel room, United decided to take people off the flight.

How did they decide which ones? This is going to be a crucial question. A United representative reportedly told passengers that it was random. But an airline spokesman later suggested that the airline prioritized (or exempted) certain categories of passengers, such as those who might miss connections, and many airlines use other customer-loyalty algorithms. That might make sense, but it wouldn’t be correctly described as “random.”

The man, at any rate, refused—not on the principle of having bought a ticket and having some right to use it but because, he said, he was a doctor and had patients to see in the morning. That is a good reason, and one that was worth more than eight hundred dollars to the doctor as well as to, presumably, his patients. The airline seems to have disagreed; that’s when it called the cops for a forcible removal. Or, as the airline put it, in a tweeted statement that ignored the ordinary meaning of the words it used, “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.” In a statement released a bit later, after the pictures of the bloodied man had circulated, United’s C.E.O., Oscar Munoz, added that the whole experience had been “upsetting” to everyone at United and that the company was “reaching out.” “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers,” Munoz said. Later, in a message to United employees, Munoz called the passenger “belligerent” and “disruptive.”

In Chicago, the doctor’s emphatic “no” appears to have moved him into a category of non-compliant, troublemaking passengers, whom the airlines have, with what appears to be increasing indifference, treated as they see fit. (These passengers may then become subject to scrutiny of their past. The tale will no doubt grow more convoluted as additional details emerge; these things tend to.) The incident recalls the scene, earlier this year, of airport security force-marching former Senator Al D’Amato off a plane headed from Fort Lauderdale to J.F.K., for allegedly inciting a passenger rebellion on a flight that had been delayed more than six hours. That ouster, too, was documented in cell-phone videos on which passengers can be heard attesting to the injustice. A number of them followed D’Amato off the plane. A discussion worth having about the Chicago flight is what racial and cultural factors might have been at play in the decision to escalate to law enforcement, and in the decision of the police to act as forcefully as they did. (United has denied that race played a role.) Questions about profiling have come up, for example, in the case of the dark-haired man who, last May, was removed from an American Airlines flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse, because a fellow-passenger became suspicious of his foreign airs and his strange, coded writing—was it Arabic? It was math: that man, Guido Menzio, originally from Italy, is an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. None of this is going to get better if a Trump Administration travel ban goes into effect.

The Chicago Police Department, in its statement, said that it had been summoned because the man had become “irate,” and was “yelling to voice his displeasure.” In explaining how he was injured, the police said that they “had attempted to carry him off the flight when he fell.” That is an interesting use of the word “fell”: in addition to not fitting the action in the video, it suggests that the man’s clumsiness alone was to blame. The doctor, still bloody, briefly got back on board Flight 3411—it’s not clear how—before apparently collapsing and being brought out on a stretcher. (The police statement notes that the man was later taken to the hospital for “non-life-threatening injuries.”) By then, according to an account that a passenger gave to the Washington Post, there were a few more seats available, because the chaperone of a high-school group had taken the kids off the flight. The adult reportedly said, “They don’t need to see this anymore.”

There is another way that this story is more than a customer-service absurdity, suggested by a connection that the journalist Josh Barro pointed out on Twitter. C.E.O. Munoz is in this job because his predecessor resigned after he was caught up, along with New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie and his Administration, in the Bridgegate scandal. That tangled story has to do with the airline offering one of Christie’s cohort at the Port Authority a special flight that made his commute easier, in the hopes of getting better gate assignments at Newark—a transaction that, from beginning to end, speaks to the sorry state of American air travel and, indeed, the larger infrastructure system. (The offense at the center of Bridgegate, after all, relied on the ability of the governor’s office to cause tumult to an entire town by closing a few traffic lanes.) United claimed that the failure to get just four crew members to Louisville would have caused thousands more people to be delayed, and surely a factor in the Flight 3411 passengers’ calculations was the lack of trust in what would happen to them next, if they left the plane for the purgatory of the terminal. Infrastructure, and our ability to rely on getting from one place to the other, seems poised on a knife’s edge. This was painfully obvious last week, with multi-day delays up and down the East Coast as the result of a very minor derailment at New York’s Penn Station. (Christie has played a role in Penn Station’s troubles, too, by helping to kill a Hudson River tunnel project.) When President Donald Trump was elected, he raised hopes just by talking about addressing infrastructure. He has offered no viable plan so far. Meanwhile, airlines talk about reaccommodation, disruptiveness, and crypto-volunteerism, while passengers, holding on to their seats and tickets, get angrier and angrier.