United breaks passengers (and apologizes feebly)

Image: Twitter

I didn’t want to write another United Airlines post, but so many of you insisted — and United’s apology is even lamer than the one from two weeks ago.

On an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville, United Express needed space to ferry four crew members to another assignment. After an $800 bribe persuaded only two passengers to vacate their seats, United chose a passenger at random to remove. When the passenger refused to budge, they got police to drag him off the plane. Here’s the video:


Regardless of the airline’s need to ferry pilots and flight crew, physically assaulting a passenger crosses the line. Refusing to board a ticketed passenger on a full flight is a barbarity we’ve come to expect, but dragging off one already seated is a new low in the treatment of customers as chattel. Here’s how Derek Thomson explained it in the Atlantic:

In this way, the United video serves as a stark metaphor, one where the quiet brutalization of consumers is rendered in shocking, literal form. The first thought that I had watching the outrageous footage of a passenger being dragged through an aisle like a bag of trash was that this should never happen. But fundamentally, this is an old story: Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts. The video is a scandal. But so is the law.

United responds with an ultra-lame apology, then follows it up with an even worse one

An assault on customers demands a sincere apology, but United knows its rights — including, apparently, the right to toss innocent paying passengers off the plane. In their first apology, they hide their responsibility behind a screen of passive voice (shown in bold):

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

Rewriting in the active voice and reinserting the missing actions establishes the barbarity of United’s actual behavior:

We overbooked Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. After our team looked for volunteers, we chose a passenger at random, but he refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily. We called law enforcement to the gate and they dragged him off screaming and eventually, unconscious. We apologize for the overbook situation. If you have any other questions, ask the authorities.

Heartless. And still inadequate, since the airline apologizes only for “the overbook situation,” rather than apologizing to the passenger it assaulted. This proves that corporations are not people, because no people would behave this awfully outside of a war zone.

A short while later, United CEO Oscar Munoz took to Twitter to attempt a more sincere apology. Here’s the result:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

The only good thing about this is that it’s short. It focuses on how upset United feels, how urgently it is moving, and what it is reviewing — we, we, we — but doesn’t get to the poor schmo who got ejected until the end. All he can expect is that they’ll reach out to him and “resolve” the situation (assuming he is once again conscious and alert).

But the true outrage here is the euphemism “having to re-accommodate” for asking police to remove a passenger, as if it is something done to United, rather than something done to a human being. If you’re going to make words up, why not get more creative?

“I apologize for this incident of involuntary deplaning.”

“We were forced to introduce one passenger to the concept of premature planeless departure.”

“In situations such as this, we have created an obligatory musical chairs policy, in which all passengers must participate.”

“Here at United, we charge people for air travel, and when necessary, we discharge them as well. (The friendly airport police help out.)”

“We reserve the right to expel foreign bodies, or any other bodies we choose.”

“Having reduced each passenger’s share of overhead bin space, legroom, armrests, and WiFi bandwidth, it seemed only natural to arbitrarily remove passengers’ butts from seats as well.”

“Welcome to our new bidirectional boarding process.”


It’s not that hard. Do it right.

If you knock a passenger unconscious as you drag him off the plane, there’s going to be video on the Net before you know it. Mr. Munoz, you and United Airlines must do better. Here’s the apology you were looking for:

I’m very disturbed by the video I just saw that took place on one of our planes. When there are not enough seats because we’ve overbooked a plane — or, as in this case, we urgently need to get flight crews to another city to avoid cancelling other flights — the right course of action is to offer whatever incentives are necessary to get passengers to volunteer to take a later flight. We should have worked harder to find volunteers, rather than requesting police to drag off a passenger already on the plane. We apologize to the passenger that we had forcibly removed and we’ll be taking action to make up for what we did.”



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  1. “Welcome to our bidirectional boarding process”

    Of course you had to write about this. We were all waiting to see how you would eviscerate them. Well done.

  2. “This proves that corporations are not people, because no people would behave this awfully outside of a war zone.” Or a Donald Trump rally. Welcome to the new normal.

  3. I had my first experience with United’s lack of concern for its passengers in 1989 when I volunteered to give up my seat and take a later flight, only to learn that the crew on the plane I voluntarily gave up had made no arrangements on behalf of those of us who solved THEIR problem. They just passed us on as a problem for another crew. I haven’t voluntarily flown on United since. (I’m a former federal employee who got stuck flying United for business because of their contractual city-pair fares.) The company’s attitude towards passengers is long embedded. I don’t hold out any hope that United’s management will ever turn this around.

  4. The reason that United did not, and will not, apologize to the passenger who was used to demonstrate escape procedures for rapid egress of the aircraft is that they do not want to lose the inevitable lawsuits that will erupt from their apparently-obscene behavior. That’s not justification for not giving an apology, of course, but does provide ex-plane-ation (sorry for the bad pun…I couldn’t resist). In the litigious society – even if there’s only a perception litigiousness – corporations, like individuals, have a need to protect themselves. Unlike people, whose consciences will occasionally override the desire for self-protection when they realize they are in the wrong, corporations won’t. *That* is proof that corporations aren’t people, in my book.

  5. The flight wasn’t overbooked. It says something when the airline can’t correctly explain its own problem correctly.

    UA’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, did issue a new statement Tuesday afternoon. It is pasted below, in its entirety.

    “Statement from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz on United Express Flight 3411

    The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

    I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

    It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

    I promise you we will do better.



    That statement is better, IMO, if not perfect.

  6. As I understand the plane was not overbooked it was booked to capacity and they needed to ferry four of their non paying non ticketed employees to another location. This is not an over booking situation. Overbooking would be that they overbooked. Paying customers and had too many on the flight. I hope when this poor man comes to he sues the pants off of them. This is ridiculous behavior. If the plane was overbooked why did they let them all board in the first place this is usually taken care of at the gate never on a plane!

  7. good grief … i glanced at this happening on the tele as i walked past … assumed he must have been a terrorist or drunk, drugs etc. … thank, josh, for enlightening me 🙂 john, sunshine coast, queensland, australia.

  8. I love how you put the official description of what happened in active voice to reveal the real accountability. When I do that with clients’ work, they often see what they’re really saying (and often want lots of edits to my version – sometimes to water ot down again, but fortunately, other times to be clear on who did what!)