One ‘Law’ Won’t Change Following the Infamous United Airlines ‘Re-Accomodation’ Incident

Whenever I read about an incident in which police are alleged to have used excessive force, I think about a comment made by a political science professor who taught a course I took titled Introduction to the Legal System.

On the first day of class the late Charles A. Hollister told us that law is a very jealous mistress that won’t tolerate competition.

The incident last month aboard a United Express flight at Chicago O’Hare Airport during which a Kentucky doctor was dragged off the plane by airport police officers reminded me yet again of professor’s Hollister’s missive.

He was talking about the legal system, but law is a concept that transcends the courts and its officers.

Every transportation company has a central “law” that is sacrosanct. Though shall not interfere with operations. Planes must fly, ships must sail, and the wheels of trains, buses and trucks must turn. Moving objects are, after all, the essence of transportation.

News reports indicate that the United Airlines incident began when four crew members showed up at the gate and said they had to get to Louisville, Kentucky, on this flight because they were scheduled to operate a flight for the company the next day.

United officials chose four passengers already aboard the plane to bump, three of which agreed to accept the airline’s financial incentive.

By law airlines must compensate passengers denied boarding, a rule that apparently also applies to those already aboard a plane.

But the Kentucky doctor balked. He had his own “law,” which he is reported to have described as “I need to get back home to attend to the needs of my patients.”

What happened after that was the logical result of everyone acting like a jealous mistress and holding fast to their “laws.”

Airline officials called police and millions have seen how they drug the recalcitrant doctor down the aisle of the plane after grabbing and pulling him out of his seat.

Those images resonated with many because it represented one of our worst nightmares about flying.

It was also an aberration. Most people get to their destination aboard the flight that they booked without getting bumped or physically assaulted.

Most people would not defy four police officers telling them to get off the plane. We are conditioned to obey police officers because if we don’t, well look what happened to that Kentucky doctor.

Police generally do not respond well to those who resist or refuse to recognize their authority and they have the legal right to inflict physical punishment upon those who defy them.

Much has been written about how the airline should have handled the situation. Commentators have written that everyone has their price and if the Kentucky doctor was unwilling to take the airline’s initial offer, then the gate agent authorized to make the offers should have gone to another passenger or upped the ante until the Kentucky doctor agreed to take the money and walk.

But whoever decided to choose the doctor for involuntary removal from that flight, or as United CEO Oscar Munoz infamously described it as “re-accomodate” him, also decided to become a jealous mistress and dig in his/her heels and insist on bumping this particular passenger.

How dare a passenger defy an airline employee telling him to get off the plane?

In the wake of the video made by passengers of the Kentucky doctor being drug down the aisle going viral, United has been falling all over itself apologizing, announcing rule changes and seeking to put the incident behind it as quickly as possible.

After attorneys for the doctor said he would sue the airline, the two sides quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum – possibly in the millions – and issued statements praising each other.

The rule changes that United and other carrier have announced may lessen the probability of another violent bumping incident from occurring again, but won’t change the basic “law” that came into play in the United Airlines incident.

Planes must fly, wheels must turn and ships must sail and the owners of those vessels will continue to insist that it is they and not those being transported who will dictate the terms of operations.

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