The nation was shocked yesterday by the sight of a man being dragged down the aisle of a United airliner. Now an email from United CEO Oscar Munoz to United employees sheds light on the other side of the story. The Munoz email was revealed by CNBC’s Ryan Ruggiero in a tweet that reprints the letter to employees.
According to Munoz, the incident occurred on Sunday, April 9, at Chicago’s O’Hare airport (KORD) on United Express Flight 3411. It is important to note here that a United Express flight is not an actual United Airlines flight, but a codeshare. The flight status tool on United’s website reveals that the flight was operated by Republic Airlines, a regional airline based in Indianapolis.
That the flight was on board a regional airline is apparent at a glance in the video from the seating arrangements, which are clearly on board a regional jet. Although most passengers don’t realize it, if you fly on anything smaller than a Boeing 737 or Airbus A319, you are probably not flying with the airline that you bought the ticket from, but with one of their regional contractors. Regional employees are generally less experienced and less well trained than mainline carrier employees. Because this incident did occur at a United hub, mainline United customer service agents may have been involved as well.
Munoz goes on to say that the problem arose when gate agents were informed that four Republic crewmembers needed to board the flight to Louisville, Kentucky (KSDF). This apparently occurred after the passengers had already been boarded.
A confidential source within United Airlines says that crewmembers were deadheading. This means that they were traveling while on official airline duty to fly a return flight the next day. Ordinarily, deadheading crewmembers are assigned seats before passengers are boarded to avoid problems like the one Sunday. This “shouldn’t have happened since an out-of-place crew situation is usually known before boarding starts.”
The passenger was not bumped due to airline passengers with buddy passes. Passengers who travel on buddy passes have the lowest boarding priority. These are also called “nonrev” or “nonrevenue” passengers and airlines will not bump a revenue passenger for them. As an airline pilot, I remember being pushed back from the gate and seeing my wife and newborn son staring glumly at the departing plane after their nonrev/space available seats were taken by paying passengers from a canceled flight.
Munoz wrote, “We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process (including offering up to $1,000 in compensation) and when we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crewmember instructions.”
“He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent,” Munoz continued. “Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.”
“Chicago Aviation Security Officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist,” Munoz said. He even claims the man was “running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.”
The videos released so far begin with the security officers removing the man from his seat and do not corroborate Munoz’s claims that the passenger was belligerent to United employees. If a passenger videoed the earlier exchanges, those clips may be forthcoming. In any case, the other passengers will probably be questioned by authorities to determine what led up to the incident.
Once the man became belligerent and refused to comply with instructions, there was no way that he was going to stay on the plane. Airline captains have always had wide latitude to remove unruly and disruptive passengers. This is especially true in the post 9/11 world. No flight crew wants to deal with an aggressive and uncompliant passenger at 35,000 feet.
Removal of disruptive passengers is for their safety as well as everyone else’s. If a passenger becomes uncontrollable in the air, they might end up dead. In several cases, aggressive passengers have been restrained by crew and other passengers. Sometimes those passengers have died while being restrained. Uncontrollable passengers might also be shot by an air marshal. This happened in Miami in 2005. If the unruly passenger survives, they can be fined up to $25,000 by the FAA.
In aviation, we talk about “accident chains.” It usually isn’t one thing that leads to an accident and that was the case here. The problem started with United choosing to use contractors instead of its own employees. There was an apparent breakdown in communication that led the gate agent to board the passengers before assigning seats to the deadhead crew. None of the passengers volunteered to take the later flight which required that the airline pick people to bump. The alternative was canceling a flight full of passengers the next day. There was also an apparent failure by the security officers to follow proper procedure while removing the passenger. Finally, there was the choice by the passenger to refuse to follow lawful instructions and to resist orders.
As the United source asked, “Why this guy couldn’t just get up and call his lawyer on a $300 Uber ride to Louisville, I don’t know. What is wrong with grown adults who in the face of law-enforcement officers, refuse to comply with instructions? And then they are shocked when it gets ugly.”
An additional lesson from the incident is that cellphone videos, while often compelling and sometimes appalling, seldom tell the whole story. In this situation, like many police shootings and fights, the camera records the moment of violence, but without the context of why it occurred. Without the full story, it’s impossible to determine what really happened or why.