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The United Incident: Complacency and Complicity

We’ve all seen the video: a United Airways passenger being dragged from his seat to make room for crew members on an overbooked flight. At this point, we’ve also seen the slough of airline stories breaking in its aftermath. A couple escorted from the flight to their destination wedding. A ten year old boy denied boarding on his family’s vacation. The list goes on.


If you’ve traveled economy lately, you’ve probably observed several less-than-favourable changes. Longer lines, narrower seats, diminished leg room and overhead bin space, dwindling amenities. Yet, rising ticket costs, which may or may not guarantee you a seat on your flight, trump it all.
For many of us, traveling is one of the greatest benefits of living in the 21st century. Even for humble folks, traveling to distant places and experiencing other cultures is finally a possibility. While certainly a privilege, travel is one more widely enjoyed than ever. However, as major airlines continue to focus more closely on profit margins than on the experience of their customers, the economy passenger increasingly suffers.
Logically, the people  on that plane were traveling with purpose—weddings, vacations, business meetings, family gatherings, final farewells. Some were brave enough to record and share what was happening. Some even gathered their courage and spoke. But to my knowledge, despite what they witnessed, none left their seats. Watching the violence in that video, I have to ask myself why none of the other passengers attempted to help.
Consider for a moment the impact that could have been made if the other passengers decided not to sit by and watch the violence unfold. If they had calmly collected their belongings, disembarked, and requested to be put on another flight in solidarity with the man who was forcibly removed. If we are thinking, feeling creatures, how can we justify remaining idle when we see others treated this way?
The answers differ for each of us, and the justifications certainly exist. To make a stand in even the smallest way would have required a varying degree of personal suffering for each and every passenger. However, consider these words from Gandhi’s autobiography:

“The salvation of the people depends upon themselves, upon their capacity for suffering and sacrifice.”

No one wants to miss a flight. In some circumstances, volunteering to do so would be no small personal sacrifice. But in the bigger picture, we must consider how those sacrifices stack up against the degradation of another person. Is our own convenience worth complicity in a system that is more concerned with filling seats than ensuring that everyone gets where they need to be?
In the wake of the media fiasco following the United Airways incident, Delta released statements that they are raising the amount of monetary compensation that can be offered to overbooked passengers to nearly $10,000. The Canadian Minister of Transportation Marc Garneau spoke this week against the practice of removing ticketed passengers from flights. The Government of Canada has even promised regulations to protect airline consumers in the future. However, this does little to combat the actual problem on a larger scale.

The fact remains that major airlines focus more on ensuring profit margins than ensuring that all passengers reach their destinations. They consider their consumers little more than breathing cargo.

Even after purchasing a ticket, passengers flying economy, especially last minute or on discounted tickets, face the possibility of being denied boarding due to overbooking. We could be asked at any point to put a price on our reasons for traveling. And as the video demonstrates, if we can’t be bought, we can certainly be removed.
Everyone’s talking about air travel right now, but the real issues extend beyond the boarding queue. We need to decide what we want to protect: the interests of the companies that enable our privileged lifestyles, or the dignity of ourselves and our fellow human beings. Non-cooperation might not be the answer for our time and place. However, we must start asking the questions. Because sitting idly by? That just won’t fly.

About the author

Richard Matt

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