Why United’s Incident Is A Much Bigger Deal Than You May Think

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Seems like at least a half-dozen times a year Ben reports on an unruly passenger being escorted off a plane, sometimes forcibly, sometimes not, almost always involving a fellow passenger recording the incident on video. It’s become, for better or worse, pretty routine. It’s easy enough to glance at a headline and scroll down.

Being in the OMAAT world as a contributor, commenter or regular reader, and being involved with the miles-and-points and aviation world directly or even tangentially gives you a certain bit of distance from this kind of situation, a certain inside-baseball-y “oh, well you have to obey a flight attendant’s orders!” kind of knee-jerk reaction.

This is not that kind of incident. It’s doing this incident an injustice to say it’s “gone viral.” Prank calls, parody music videos and misguided Pepsi ad campaigns go viral; this is an example of citizen journalism in action. What was a line-item news story on some miles-and-points blogs this morning has now dominated my social media news feed, and, in very quick order, become the topic of discussion in offices and in public.


This is no longer the kind of altercation you can nitpick with a technical interjection about “well, he should have asked for $1,000 in vouchers” without sounding tone-deaf. Because the conversation has moved on. It’s no longer about involuntary denial of boarding (or being kicked off a plane to accommodate United crew).

It’s about a massive overreach of corporate authority, a horrifying use of violence when utterly unnecessary, and generally thuggish behavior that’s tolerated because, through years of (rightly) valuing our collective security above all else, we have given airlines authority backed up with the tools of law enforcement to handle business matters with the subtlety of a bludgeon. When an airline’s revenue management task force can enforce their bottom line with physical violence and a non-threatening older man is bloodied as a result, people pay attention.


So what’s the point of this post? Just to say that this is (or is becoming) a much bigger story than it might have appeared at first glance. That a lot of people are upset, and offended. Does the video show a race issue? Probably not, but if people on your social media feed or in this comments section believe it is a race issue, and you disagree, listen to them and ask why rather than dismiss them: given that traveling in the United States as a nonwhite person or someone of a different nationality or ethnic background has gotten more… complicated (to say the least) in the last 100 days, it’s no wonder so many people have their antennae up.

Social media and iPhones with video cameras have changed the nature of breaking news in our world in recent years. No longer can you predict what story will resonate and what story will fizzle out.  (I mean, literally after months and months of a presidential candidate spewing offensive crap, it took the discovery of a ten-year old Access Hollywood video to gain national outrage.)

This story is resonating, big time. It’s more than just about overbooking or technical regulations or obeying the crew’s orders.

It’s resonating because these videos show a shocking and horrifying lack of empathy that, for many, encapsulates 2017 in a nutshell.

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