A short time ago, I was horrified and sickened to watch a video of a 69-year-old man in which he was body-slammed by security officers and dragged down the aisle of an overbooked aircraft at Chicago O’Hare. A short time later, the man, bleeding from his mouth, managed somehow to re-enter the aircraft and kept on insisting he needed to go home. The poor man was dazed and confused, probably due to the concussion he received in the earlier scuffle.
Adding insult to injury, the airline’s chief executive officer gave an initial statement saying the passenger was being “disruptive and belligerent.” The shocking video and the CEO’s response provoked an outcry on social media as the airline’s stocks began to plummet and lose millions of dollars. Eventually, the CEO reversed his position and issued another statement saying the passenger had done nothing and did not deserve to be treated this way.
Normally, airlines follow streamlined procedures that ensure that weak and vulnerable travelers such as the disabled, the injured, and families with infants or small kids are allowed to board first. Of course, they also have other procedures for favoring extra crew members, first-class passengers, frequent fliers and others. In this case, the flight was overbooked and some passengers needed to give up their seats so that members of another crew could fly out to their destination.
The clerks at the airline counter bungled this procedure when they let all passengers embark the plane before asking four of them to disembark. These passengers had already been seated and might have had a legal right to keep their seats. It was up to them to willingly give up their seats and three of them did.
The fourth one, the elderly doctor, refused the compensation offered by the airline and told them that he had to get back to his patients the next day. Even though the airline CEO apologized for the way the doctor was treated, it will be interesting to find out whether a lawsuit brought against the airline will succeed.
I have been flying on airplanes since 1975 and I know that an airline ticket is essentially a contract between the passenger and the airline. It turns out that passengers have very limited rights. The ticket is an asymmetrical document favoring the airline, which can refuse service to a passenger, as in the case of an overbooked flight. Anyone who travels frequently should pay attention to the clauses written in fine print on the ticket.
Was it necessary for the airline to use violence dispensed by airport security? Probably not. The airline could have offered higher monetary incentives and it could have sought out other volunteers among the other passengers. Learning from this fallout, other airlines quickly readjusted their procedures and some are now offering up to $10,000 for voluntary flight bumping.
What was shocking to everyone who watched the video is the shameful way an elderly person in the twilight of his life was treated. I immediately identified with the 69-year-old by imagining that it could have been my father or my grandfather who was being treated in this manner. All of the major faith traditions emphasize treating the elderly with respect because they are vulnerable human beings at this stage of their life.
Instead of handling this passenger with compassion and listening to his reason for not disembarking, the airline acted like a bully and resorted to violence by means of the airport security officers. If common sense had prevailed, this whole affair could have been handled differently and with a better outcome. As a result of this shocking encounter with one of its passengers, the image of the airline took its own severe beating following this incident.
Instead of confronting the problem head-on and dealing with it openly, the airline CEO gave an initial muted response and offered no apology. It took a public blowback on social media to make him realize that the best response would have been an apology to the elderly doctor. He did promise, however, that his company would never again request that law enforcement officials get in a plane to remove a booked, paid, seated passenger.
In the end, the airline CEO admitted he felt shame when he saw the viral video of airport police dragging the passenger from one of his airlines’ flights. The same airline later announced that it would compensate everyone on the flight for the full fare. The question remains as to how the airline will handle the compensation of the downtrodden doctor. In the meantime, many on social media have called for a boycott of the airline, and an activist coalition has already organized a protest at the same airport.
Let us hope that all parties concerned learn from this lesson and use it an opportunity to improve the procedures for safely and comfortably transporting passengers to their destination, especially the most vulnerable among them.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.