I want to say that over this past week, I did not want to comment at all about this terrible situation. It pains me greatly because not only was what happened egregious to the passenger, but it also undoes so much of what the rest of us do each and every day to keep you safe and comfortable. For me personally, this applies to my being a Captain and every thing I do with the books, website, and postings.
I am going to preface this article by saying that these thoughts and views may not be popular with you. I am going to break down many of the variables that were in play here and give you some of my own thoughts. I simply ask that you put yourself in the shoes of all groups involved and think how this would be prevented in the future. And yes, for those of you who have asked, I have kicked several people off of my flights thoughout my career. So, lets start with that.
My job is to keep you safe and preferably comfortable when doing it. I am also responsible for the $150 million dollar jet I am entrusted with, my crew and all of my passengers. If there is ever a situation where the jet is at the gate or on the ground that makes other passengers, the flight attendants, the first officers, or myself concerned that things could escalate or get worse, whether it be from odd behavior, anger, aggression, medical issue, drug use, or whatever, I will have the passenger or passengers removed. The events of September 11th, 2001 should still be fresh in the minds of us all – and as crew members, they are. My friends had their throats slashed with box cutters, then the jets and passengers were flown into fully occupied buildings. So yes, we are spring loaded to de- escalate any situation that arises on the ground for everyone’s safety onboard the aircraft. I cannot just “pull over” and kick someone out of my car. It is a huge ordeal to divert, from a logistical, financial, and risk perspective.
Now lets talk about specifics of this event. Yes, the flight was oversold. Most all airlines oversell their aircraft. There are computer algorithms that compute the probable percentage of passengers not making it to the airport on-time along with passengers who miss their connecting flights. Each flight and time has a different percentage associated with it. If you had a choice in your business to sell all of your product or just some of your product, would’t you want to sell all? After all, the airlines on average need 78-82% of “BIS” (my term for “butts in seats”) to even start making a profit. So, when they are in a situation where everyone shows up and are on time, they “buy off” passengers. This is a win, win for everyone. The airline gets to make their target sales most of the time and several passengers get compensated big bucks for their inconvenience of taking a later flight. (As a side note, I want to point out, it was not even United Airlines that this happened with. It is a contracted regional carrier who uses the name United Express as a feeder company to United and I will refrain from saying their name. The aircraft was a much smaller CRJ). They first offered $400 dollars additional and a hotel overnight stay to all of the passengers. They went up to as high as $1000 (this unverified). They needed to buy off 4 passengers for their seats, 3 had taken these great offers.
Now I will discuss with you the crew situation. All airlines have a thing called “dead heading” (I have no idea where it got the name from). We also have a thing called “commuting”. Dead heading is where the airline MUST position a crew of pilots and/or flight attendants to another location. They are either going to work or going back home. Many times the airlines know ahead of time that they will need to do this. They will reserve the seats ahead of time, before they are purchased by customers. But, many situations arise such as severe weather or mechanical issues that no one has any control over. In this specific case, the airline only knew last minute that they needed to position a crew of two pilots and two flight attendants from Chicago to Louisville. These crew members needed to be in Louisville in order to fly the next flight out. If the crew was not put on that flight, the following flight out of Louisville would have to be cancelled, inconveniencing and angering an entire flight full of passengers. The crew is called “must rides” because the operation would be greatly affected down line if they are not positioned in needed locations. Commuting is where crew members live somewhere and but are based somewhere else. Imagine if you had to move your family every time your company made a different business decision. We must “jet hike” (my word for hitch hike) by jet in order to get to and from work. We are only allowed on the jet once all of the paying passengers and standby paying passengers are on board. Sometimes, we ride in the cockpit or jump seat but we are not allowed to do this if we are dead heading because we need to be rested and ready to fly once we land.
I am going to say the following which may sound a bit harsh. Any restaurant, bar, service provider, bus, train, etc. holds the right to kick anyone out at anytime. When people buy a ticket on a flight, they are not purchasing the airplane as their own. Simply, the customer purchases the ability to “rent a seat” for a specific flight. The airlines own the jets. If they need people off and are offering another flight, plus triple the original ticket price, plus a hotel but people will not take this, they will have to ask people to please come off of the flight. There is a computer system that looks at who is on the flight. As an example: it will not break up a family of 4 to remove just one person. Nor will it chose to remove someone who flies frequently and pays a lot of money to the airlines.
Mr. Dao was asked 3 times to please come off of the flight, with all of his extra benefits he would get. He refused. Stopping right there, I would think most of us, if asked to come off of an airplane or anywhere else that is owned by someone else, we would rightfully be upset but we would leave the premise and deal with the situation afterwards. Yes, at that point security should have been called because now the concern becomes one of safety. He is resisting airline instructions. When the police asked him to please come off the flight, he still refused. If the police tell me or most of us to do something, we do it. Otherwise it is called “resisting arrest”. The oncoming crew was assaulted and verbally abused on the flight headed to fly the next flight.
What do you think should change and how do you think this should be prevented? I think the airline could have upped the anty possibly for the buyout. Maybe then, a different customer would have taken the buyout. But, there is a max cap of money offered and the gate agents were following protocol. The police should not have used this sort of excessive force. But, what sort of force should they use? The asked him to get off the jet and he did not.
This is such a horrible event and so shocking to see. Please keep in mind as I always say, stay vigilant and speak up if you see anything or anyone that does not look or seem right. It is for your safety to help us best protect you. For more detailed information on Air Travel Safety, buy “Remove Before Flight” book.
Here are two other articles below written by friends of mine who were/are long time Captains on multiple aircraft throughout their careers.
Blue Skies and Safe Travels!
This Post Has 223 Comments
As someone who has worked both in the airline industry and in/around law enforcement, I sit at the intersection of this debacle. In distilling all of the available information, including that which you have published here, I find the arrogance and entitlement mindset of the public just plain staggering. I give a little bit of grace in the difference between getting kicked out of a restaurant vs getting kicked off an airplane only to the extent that flying is more time-sensitive; the immediacy of dining alternatives makes this obvious. It’s easier to simply choose a different restaurant than it is to simply pick a different airline and destination. Having said that, by recording the video of the endgame and leaving out the refused offers that came beforehand simply provided a public already strapped with a short attention span a misbegotten validation that it’s okay to throw a public tantrum. You are correct in your assessment of “things” post 9/11; there is little room for foolishness in and around Part 121, either on the ground or in the air. The flying public would do well to remember this. You are also correct in that passengers’ tickets only grant them passage. I wouldn’t even characterize it as a seat rental. Or, if it is a seat rental, it’s not guaranteed to be on a specific flight. Flights get cancelled, seats come up as unoccupiable (this actually happened to me recently with a valid boarding pass in hand, I was not allowed to board. Something wrong with the physical seat.) Were officers heavy handed? Probably. But did the passenger create the situation? He did indeed. His adamant refusal to deplane allowed the situation to escalate. Further, it is possible his refusal caused the flight to miss their take-off slot. I don’t know this for certain, but I suspect this is true.
As my friends who know me to be a Part 91 pilot come to me for my opinion of this situation, I told them some unpopular things, too. Speaking as someone with an education in economics, to those who called for the end to overbooking, I warned them to be careful of what you wish for. It is not hard for me to to envision regulatory capture come down on the airlines to make overbooking more problematic for them. If the crew is not allowed priority for the logistical reasons, I can see immediate cost increases for the airline. This cost will pushed onto the flying consumer in the form of increased fares. One person even placed his ignorance on full display, “Put them on another plane. Don’t they have hundreds?” to which I tried to advise him of the cost of merely turning on the APU, never mind getting a full crew in place to fly five people to a layover destination. It never dawned on him that the logistical ballet that airlines perform every hour is orchestrated on a large scale, and this is when everything is working perfectly, never mind the weather, incidents, squawks, and glitches. To use ANOTHER airplane for just a crew would be cost-prohibitive. I proceeded to explain to him how the logistical dance works, even explaining “window of circadian low” and the Part 121 regulations that surround crew rest requirements. He quickly piped down after that. Now if only the rest of the public understood this.
I’d personally rather have the extra ticket and hotel room and avoid the concussion and arrest record. Just sayin’.
Ian, you are an excellent writer and make very targeted points. I really appreciate your thoughts and time in constructing these details. And, I am with you too on the last! LOL
Imagine if you are the passenger of an Uber driver. As you get inside the car, the Uber driver gets a call from his family asking him to come home and drive their daughter to the doctor. He decides not to take you to your destination. He calls another driver on his phone, who will be there as soon as possible to take you to your destination. You haven’t left your starting point. But you refuse to get out, demanding that he take you to your destination. He is equally adamant, putting it in park, waiting for you to get out. You stand your ground; he calls the cops. The cops arrive and ask you nicely to get out. You refuse. The cops now demand you get out. You refuse. The cops now tell you that you will be arrested for not only not complying with a lawful directive from law enforcement, they may also charge you with trespassing, as your right to remain in the car has been verbally rescinded. In effect, the driver has voluntarily backed out of the bargain. You continue to stand your ground. The police open the door and begin to remove you forcibly from the vehicle. You resist. They tell you that you are under arrest for the charges they mentioned, and that resisting arrest will add that to the charge. You resist and are forcibly removed from the vehicle, placed under arrest, and taken into custody.
This doesn’t sound nearly as remarkable as the incident on the airplane. But it is nearly identical, except for the reason why the driver refused. In the airline incident, it was a bona fide company logistics concern. But in both cases, one party decided to back out of the deal. The Uber driver was “overbooked”; he had to be two places at once, driving his passenger and taking his family to the doctor. I am fairly certain that if this incident had really happened, it wouldn’t have been front page news.
Have we forgotten that vendors can “fire” clients, too?
Exactly. Good analogy Ian. We could also add the part about the Uber driver offering to pay the passenger 4 times the ticket cost of the booked trip and still providing the ride to the destination. Thank you for taking the time to write!
Thank you Captain Laura! I am too
a Captain at our illustrious airline. I too agree with your synopsis and
I wish for others to “digest” this information. I’ll be sharing this article.
Thank you Captain Bartz! I would have an endless supply of topics if I wrote about every scenario in the past few weeks. But it is why I wrote my book – to help people understand the dynamic nature and factors that play into what happens in air travel!
Very interesting blog.
This discussion highlights why I no longer travel by air. It is just not worth the stress, anxiety and disrespect.
If airlines make business computations in the manner described- fair enough- it is up to the consumer to vote with their feet- or in this case their butts. Of course many have no choice but to travel by air. Consumers can also advocate for different treatment in other ways, such as by joining consumer groups or by trying to elect governments that represent voters and not corporate interests.
We often hear about the razor thin profit margins of airlines. Yet the stock price of United Airlines, for example, has risen by approx 400% since 2013. According to Bloomberg, United CEO Oscar Munoz yearly compensation is $18,720,548. Not bad. So the razor thin profit margin business model apparently works quite well for some, just maybe not for the average schmo.