There was an overreaction on all sides of the equation including the crew, the security authorities and perhaps even the individual passenger himself on United Airlines flight 3411 – albeit the passenger, having paid their fare, had a reasonably held entitlement and expectation to travel, without having the air miles beaten out of him.
The US Department of Transportation is investigating the incident which also led immediately to one security officer’s suspension and created a publicity nightmare for United and its CEO.
The world of flight is a tense and stressful place with major pressure on pilots and crew to get you there on time and on schedule, and for the airline to make as much money as possible in the process when operating margins are increasingly tight.
Share prices depend on such matters, and albeit United’s share price took a tumble in the immediate aftermath of this debacle, it quickly recovered as the market took a hard look through all of the online emotion involved.
Overbooking of flights is done regularly to take account of no-shows, but in this instance United needed to transfer some crew to another location, necessitating some passengers to disembark the flight and free up seats.
If United didn’t get some free seats on this plane, another plane and passengers elsewhere were going to be delayed as a result. That is what philosophers call ‘Utilitarianism’ – achieving the ‘Greatest Good of The Greatest Number’ where the best action to take is the one that maximises overall utility, even if there is collateral damage.
Utilitarianism is a way of treating people that has been around since Machiavelli wrote ‘The Prince’, but as United and/or the authorities have amply demonstrated, it doesn’t have much to do with individual human rights.
United appears to have been within its ‘rights’ in using its contract with passengers and in terms of the regulations governing such occurrences. As for the unfortunate victim, a number of other passengers did actually disembark compliantly, without any altercation, having been asked to do so.
When the air marshals stepped in, it then became a whole different ball game – a ‘security situation’ on board an aircraft. You wouldn’t need a crystal ball to imagine how far a situation like that could go, particularly with a resistant passenger and nobody present who could diffuse the situation.
In perception terms, United Airlines lost the communications battle in the nanoseconds that it took other passengers with smartphones to post their videos to a worldwide audience.
An outright and redemptive apology would have helped from the start, followed by a pledge to investigate and adjust procedures wherever necessary to avoid a recurrence. But the balancing act is both moral and legal; how do you address the outrage of the public without creating a legal liability for the airline by overtly saying you’re sorry and by default, wrong. A Court may yet decide on that one.
That said, people will still need to fly and they will still fly with United Airlines. The presence of smartphones might at least help to ensure they won’t be roughed up in the process.
The entire debacle has once again demonstrated the power of digital media as a means of calling organisations and authorities to account in front of a global audience. The Internet wasn’t around when Machiavelli wrote the Prince and it could help to challenge the theory of Utilitarianism, but only if people were actually to use their collective consumer power instead of just emoting online.