Year Four. Month One. #SEA.

Back in my United Express days as a regional flight attendant :)

So, I know that everyone and their mom has an opinion about the guy who got dragged off of a United Express flight last week.

Full disclosure: I haven't watched the whole video yet. I've seen the gory photos and heard the audio.

I haven't watched it in full because I've seen similar situations unfold in front of me as an active safety professional in the airline industry.

That's right, I'm a flight attendant. And I also have an opinion, and if you'd care to listen, I'd love to share it.

Overbooking, or overselling is a common, and timeless tradition in the transportation, entertainment and hospitality industries. Many business models, like commercial aviation, operate on a tightrope-like budget, with a thin margin of profit. Since the deregulation of the airline industry, ticket prices are now more competitive and variable than ever, which means you may score a sweet Memorial Day weekend deal and the airlines will slide by, just as long as every seat is filled.

You never know what's going to happen when you work in the nutty world of the airline industry!

As it turns out, people don't show up for flights. They sleep in, get stuck in traffic, have an emergency come up or miss connections from other airports. Most airlines will offer some sort of compensation (a rebooked ticket later in the day or a travel credit for part of the value of the missed flight), but now the airline is essentially losing out on a few seats. This could make the difference between a profit and a loss. What's a highly competitive industry to do?

Well, overbooking seems to be the uncomfortable answer.

But what happens if no one sleeps in? How about if all connections are made? What does the airline do if everyone shows up?

This is when the bumping happens. There are voluntary bumps and involuntary bumps. The voluntary bumps are the best. This is when the gate agent starts offering $200, no, wait, $500, okay, okay, $800 travel voucher for you to take a later flight! Woo-hoo!

Do the puppies get travel vouchers if they're bumped? Asking for a friend.

And usually some business man or a family happy to extend their vacation nabs the voucher and enjoys some free money towards another (possible oversold, always read the fine print!) vacation.

And then there's the involuntary bumping. Eeek.

If no one volunteers to be bumped, the gate agent will choose the last person to check in (this is coming from a United Express gate agent in Appleton, Wisconsin whom I once asked all about the overbooking process), or folks who bought last minute, low cost tickets on third-party websites like Expedia.com.

Folks, if you are involuntarily bumped, please comply with the gate agent's instructions. Leave the plane without a fight. Know your rights. Go back to the boarding area, ask the gate agent if your checked bags can be immediately removed from the plane (so they don't go on without you), gather your thoughts, talk to a customer service agent, try to remain calm (I know it's hard, but the calmer and the more confident you are the easier it will be for customer service agents to properly compensate you for your troubles).

Deadheading to Vancouver. No one was bumped on this flight, but it does happen. 

This isn't new. This has been happening for decades

If you don't like it, you can do a little research and only fly airlines who pledge to not overbook. jetBlue, for example, does not authorize overselling. However, even with airlines who try to do everything right, things do go sideways. In an emergency situation, an airline crew of four may need to be transported to another base. If that happens on a full flight, four people will be bumped.

Again, remain calm, know your rights and comply.

Back to the infamous United Express flight, and the man who was forcibly removed from it.

This is the really sticky part.

Airlines have a Contract of Carriage, which is basically the fine print that says that the airline has the final say in who they will and will not transport and why they may need to deny boarding for special instances. United has one of these. It's widely available.

Realize what you're getting into before you get onto the plane. <3

Every single passenger on United Express flight 3411, including Dr. David Dao, agreed to United's contract of carriage when they bought a ticket.

And special circumstances came up, namely, a crew needed to be immediately transported to Louisville. So, under the contract of carriage, United had the right to bump four passengers so that the crew of four could be transported (deadheaded) to Louisville.

Three passengers understood that they were being involuntarily bumped, complied and left the aircraft. One passenger refused to leave.

Now, I will say this: I do not know for certain how the four bumped passengers were chosen. One of the passengers was the wife of Dr. Dao, so I am assuming that they bought their tickets together. I am not sure if Dr. Dao and his wife's tickets were from a third-party website, or if they and the other two bumped passengers were the last four to check in or if any of the four bumped passengers were elite status members. There were vague statements that a "computer" chose who to bump, but in every conversation that I've had with United employees, and with my previous experience as a United Express employee I do know that there is a certain method as to who gets bumped.

As a cabin crewmember, what would you do?

If for whatever reason the decision was based on prejudice and biases, we have every reason to be outraged.

But we just don't know.

All this aside, could gate agents, flight attendants or pilots have handled the situation more delicately? Could they have continued to ask the man to step off the plane to have a quiet conversation? Could they have been more compassionate and careful with their words, helping to de-escalate the situation before it turned physical and before the Chicago law enforcement officers got involved?


(And we do not have nearly enough time today to get into how the law enforcement officers handled this passenger.)

Compliance is a difficult situation. I have had to call police to have passengers removed from the plane, from the jetbridge and even from the boarding area because they have actually become belligerent and disruptive. I have also been able to de-escalate countless situations before they became explosive.

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. Open your heart.

Remember, you have no idea what your customer has gone through in the minutes, hours, days, weeks or years before you interact with them. You have no idea what sort of microaggressions they may have faced, what prejudices, what abuses or what situation they are flying to. You have no idea if a TSA patdown is triggering past trauma, you have no idea that a certain phrase (meant as a joke) reminds them of generations of racism or if asking a passenger to move back four rows (because of weight and balance issues), may feel to them as if you are disrespecting their place in this world.

What seems like everyday business as usual may be the straw that broke the camel's back.

And that, my friends, is not okay.

And if you are a part of it, please realize what has been done. If someone is clinging to the back of an airline seat in tears with blood running down his face, it may not be about missing a flight to Louisville. It may be about something bigger.

Think outside the box ... er, I mean, airplane.

So, in conclusion, did United have the right to bump four passengers off of flight 3411?


Was it handled correctly?


Can we learn from this?

Yes, yes we can. If we are open to listening, to learning and to helping others on their journey, whether it's being mindful of inclusive language or taking the time to explain why things are happening onboard ("Folks, I need to move two passengers from this zone to row 32. This is for weight and balance purposes, which I am happy to explain further."); we can make sure that our passengers are comfortable and feel respected.

My name badge says "committed to kindness," and I believe that is a pledge that should not be exclusive to airline folks.

We may not know all the "whys" and the "hows" of United Flight 3411. We only know that for one passenger, whatever his background or state of mind, this was a nightmare.

We need to do better, friends.


  1. Well done, as always.

    I do have some observations. First, with the advent and continued growth of preassigned seating....most entertainment venues use it now, including many movie theaters... it may not be that overbooking is the still the norm. Most places are assigning seating AND that means they can't sell the same seat twice -- even if the person doesn't show up (up to a certain time before the event in some cases, anyway). I do think the airlines need to rethink overbooking and eliminate it as much as possible or altogether.

    And second, you make a great point about understanding the man and what might have been possible "contributing" factors to his resistance. But I do wonder if the man had not been injured during his removal, if this would have been as big a deal. Blood and screaming do get attention, sometimes more than they should.

    Third, I do believe, though, that he broke the agreement he had with the airline. He knew, or should have known, to what he was agreeing when he bought the ticket. Then, when the airlines exercised their options under the contract he should have complied. His refusal was, in effect, a breach of contract.

    And finally, It appears to me that the airline and security personnel did about as much as they could and no matter what they did he wasn't going to budge. In any case, could the airlines have handled it better? Maybe, but in the end, his "removal" may have been inevitable.

    Sorry if this is a bit long, I do tend to get wordy.



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