The Deeper Scandal Of That Brutal United Video [Watch]

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

It is the “re-accommodation” heard ’round the world: A passenger on an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday night was ripped out of his seat by uniformed officers and dragged down the aisle on his back like carry-on luggage, as several horrified passengers captured video footage of his bloodied face on their phones.

The incident created a firestorm online, which only intensified after United published a mealy-mouthed statement on Monday morning that seemed to blame the bruised customer and apologized only for “the overbooking situation.” After several hours, punctuating the sordid event with the least human-sounding statement in crisis-PR history, United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized "for having to re-accommodate” customers, as if the brutalized passenger had merely been asked to switch from an aisle seat.

Sometimes, a shocking controversy like this one is both freakish and representative. Indeed, this incident is both an extraordinary occurrence—overbookings are common yet rarely involve thuggish yanking—and also a dramatic reminder of the profoundly unequal, and even morally scandalous, relationship between consumers and corporations in industries where a handful of large companies dominate the sector.

But first, a few details to flesh out the story. According to one flyer, soon after the passengers boarded the flight, United announced that four of them would have to give up their seats to make room for United employees commuting to work a flight out of Louisville. After the offer was raised to $800, and nobody was willing to leave the flight (perhaps because it would require missing a full day's work without a compelling excuse), somebody from United announced that a computer would randomly select four people to leave the plane. When the man in the video, a doctor, was selected, he refused to leave his seat, saying he had to see patients the following morning. United called officers to the scene. The rest is now a matter of digital record.

Can United really do this? Legally, the airlines can turn away paying customers, and they do it thousands of times a year. Airlines often overbook flights to account for the likelihood that passengers won’t show up, and, although this can be extremely annoying, it is also legal and might even contribute to lower prices for tickets, because it increases the likelihood that planes will be filled to capacity.

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