Do not fly United if you have any choice. As bad as most airline customer service is, it’s now becoming clear that United stands behind employees who violate United’s own contracts and call in the cops when passengers assert their legal rights.
It’s always risky to reach conclusions from single incidents, but now we have a pattern. Despite earnest-sounding claims by United CEO Oscar Munoz after the notorious United-instigated illegal removal of Dr. Dao, in which the Chicago Department of Aviation’s security force knocked him about so hard he got a concussion, lost 2 teeth and has his nose broken, nothing has changed. And that should come as no surprise. Munoz’s initial statement after the incident was to back all the United employees involved and depict Dr. Dao as “belligerent” and “disruptive”.
Even though Munoz later walked most of his initial remarks back, no employees were fired or even sanctioned for their out-of-line conduct in the Chicago incident. That send a loud-and-clear message to United employees that even egregious abuses would be forgiven.
As we explained at the time, once a passenger has been seated, United’s contract of carriage sets forth the grounds on which a customer can be denied transport. “We need the seat because we’ll lose money otherwise” as in screwed up on crew logistics, isn’t one of them.
Revealingly, I have yet to find any US mainstream media reports on this incident, but the foreign press has taken interest, so I am relying on the Sun and the Mirror for details beyond the the video embedded in the tweet below.
One has to wonder if discrimination played into this, since the passenger was “Indian origin,” Navang Oza from California. He was checking into the international airport in Louisiana. The bone of contention was over an oversize bag. He was reportedly told the fee for checking it would be $300 when he had only been charged $125 to check the bag on his inbound flight (I infer the same city pair, that this was the return flight on a round trip ticket).
This is what happened when Oza decided he needed to record the interaction:
— Navang Oza (@Navang25) May 8, 2017
Oza was completely within his rights to record the discussion. This airport is a public place, owned by the City of New Orleans. Courts have repeatedly ruled that no one in a public place has an expectation of privacy.
The airline attendant had no legal right to cancel Oza’s ticket. Read the United Contract of Carriage, Rule 21, Refusal of Transport. There is nothing here that even remotely resembles Oza’s situation. Note that Oza made clear he was willing to pay the baggage fee. “Passenger was recording airline employees” and “Agent got pissed off at passenger” are not on the list. I also searched for “film,” “video,” and “record” and found no general prohibitions regarding video recording (ironically, I am told that the airlines regard taking videos on airplane as a violation despite the lack of any such provision in the Contract of Carriage. But as the Dr. Dao incident demonstrates, if enough people start recording, the airline does not enforce, apparently due to recognizing it would get even more recordings if if tried evicting that many passengers, plus lose too much in the way of revenues on the flight and potentially delay takeoff).
The agent threatened to have United steal Oza’s bag, apparently as punishment for the sin of filming her. The exact quote: “I need you to call the cops because this will be confiscated.”
The agent clearly misrepresented Oza’s position. Oza insisted on getting a manager. The agent instead places a call and it does not appear any “manager” ever showed up. The agent tris to move out of range but you can hear her say that Oza was “refusing” to pay the fee, and Oza repeatedly corrects her right after that. You can also hear her saying “videotape” so she made an issue of that too. 1
An airport cop escorted Oza out. This again is legally dubious. After the Dr. Dao incident, when his lawyer included the Chicago Police Department in his initial filing, the CPD and some other major police departments instructed airport security forces, who often lack full police powers, not to get involved in customer service disputes. Apparently the New Orleans police didn’t get a memo like that. From the Mirror:
A Sheriff’s Deputy from Jefferson Parish approached Oza to calm the situation and told him: “Sir, you have the right to do what you want. It’s a public space.”
Fox 8 Live reports that when asked if he had been drinking Oza replied “obviously” but he claims he had only drunk two beers before this incident – and the subject of alcohol does NOT come up in the video footage.
But according to Fox 8 Live the deputy escorted Oza to a taxi and suggested he get a flight when he was “sober”.
I didn’t see this in the footage above but from the Sun:
During the confrontation, an officer approaches the scene and asks Oza: “Sir, you have the right to do what you want. It’s a public space. Have you been drinking?”
Oza replied “obviously” but claims he had only drunk two beers before the drama unfolded and the agent never mentioned his intoxication level.
There’s no blood alcohol restriction in public places in of all place the famously rowdy New Orleans. This is a pretty thin excuse for removal, but Oza erred in answering the question. It would have been better to call the cop’s bluff and say he’d submit to a blood alcohol test.
United has apologized but that hardly seems adequate.
Oza made another tactical error. At 1:07, the agent offered to let him pay the fee but at that point, he wanted to talk to a manager even though he repeatedly said he was willing to pay the fee. So he might have still been wanting to argue against high charge he had been quoted. But managers are scare to non-existant at check-ins, and that gave the agent control of the situation, since she made a call instead.
This incident follow United allegedly killing a giant rabbit and trying to wriggle out of paying for it, and making a nurse who has a bona fide bladder problem pee in a cup in full view of fellow passengers rather than let her use the bathroom close to landing time (I’ve regularly seen people run to the loo when the landing announcements are made and in all my years of flying, have never seen anyone stopped, so this looks like yet more tinpot tyranny).
Things have gotten so bad that USA Today, the highest circulation newspaper in America, published an op-ed urging passengers to unite and stand up to bullying airport staff:
Bravo to a brave male passenger who confronted the American Airlines bully (aka flight attendant) who hassled a woman with a baby on Flight 591, from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth on April 21. Just when I was beginning to be worried about the notable absence of passenger solidarity in support of David Dao on that United Airlines flight, along comes Sir Galahad to renew my faith that chivalry is not dead.
Unfortunately, that courageous traveler seems to be the exception. Witness the latest episode of passenger abuse aboard a Delta flight from Hawaii last month. The viral video shows the poor husband/father being hassled by both cabin crew and security officers. He has to deal with these authorities on his own, with no other passengers coming to his aid….
We, the flying public, should take lessons from the Flight 591 hero, Tony Fierro, in addition to praying he is on our next flight with abusive cabin crew. We have got to stop accepting airline mistreatment as the norm; grin and bear it will lose your front teeth, as Dao found out to his cost…
Modern airline travel has become so stressful that the flying public seems to have adopted a survival strategy to get safely from departure to arrival. I call it the three-wise-monkeys coping strategy: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Whenever bad stuff happens around our flight, we tend to hunker down, hoping it will go away — or at least that we won’t get sucked into the drama. “Don’t get involved” has become a modern mantra for urban civilization. Perhaps this is the “Kitty Genovese effect,” named for the young woman murdered outdoors in New York in 1964, and the conflicting claims over whether people came to her aid.
When Dao was assaulted, there was no Tony leaping out of his seat to come to the rescue of a fellow passenger being abused by “authorities.” Why not? Are we all suffering from anomie, the term used by French sociologist Emile Durkheim to describe a disconnectedness in modern society, a social and moral malaise, a kind of alienation that disrupts the human connection of solidarity between the individual and the group.
Many of us have participated recently in anti-Trump rallies around the country as a way of expressing our solidarity with other citizens and neighbors against common threats to American values. Can we now harness some of that collective energy next time we take a flight and be prepared to stick up for one another in the face of abusive treatment by an airline?
While I applaud the sentiment, the author, a psychologist who specializes in child abuse, doesn’t offer concrete suggestions on how to intervene.
In the meantime, my solution is to avoid United, which is leading the race to the bottom in airline service.
1 I once had a tinpot tyrant gate agent misrepresent the airline, so this “I’m the decider” attitude looks to be pretty common. I had a US Air Shuttle ticket that should have allowed me to get on an earlier flight with no penalty. When the gate agent insisted I pay an upcharge, I called reservations, which confirmed that I should not be charged. The gate agent refused to talk to the reservations personnel on my phone, claiming it was illegal. I had to get a supervisor at reservations (regular reps aren’t allowed to make outbound calls) who agreed with the position of the lower-level agent, and took the phone number of the gate agent. The phone rang, the gate agent listened, and then hung up and told me the supervisor had told him I had to pay the upcharge. The absence of any discussion is a strong tell the agent lied; you’d expect some ego-based pushback like “my system says otherwise”.