Airport security officers on Sunday took a belligerent passenger off United Airlines (UAL) flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville.
Many people have concluded, after watching a 33-second video, during which the passenger screams loudly as he is dragged down the aisle and a woman declares, "Oh My God" five times, that United Airlines was at fault.
Of course, there is more to know about this incident. But in our country, it seems, a 33-second video is enough to stimulate days of outrage, fueled by a slew of inaccurate reporting and blogging and tweeting, accompanied by dozens of "experts" offering their views on how United's reputation has been damaged and how they should be hired to improve it.
United's share price has also been impacted, falling slightly since the incident. Shortly after the opening bell on Thursday, United shares traded at $69.44, down about 2% since Friday's close. The decline is a total non-story, one that will conclude as soon as United reports earnings on Monday.
Let's state a few facts upfront. The flight wasn't overbooked, despite the outcry regarding airline overbooking. United has the right to ask passengers to give up their seats on flights. It must compensate them and report the event to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such events are extremely rare -- about two for every 20,000 passengers in the fourth quarter. But they happen.
Also, United didn't drag anybody off an aircraft -- this was done by three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers. They have all been suspended.
Essentially, United is guilty of calling the police.
United is the nation's fourth-largest airline by passengers. It employs 82,272 people and pays most of them well; the average annual salary in the airline industry is $84,000. In 2016, United operated 81.7% of its flights on time, fifth among the 11 largest airlines.
Within the airline industry, United is generally viewed as a carrier on the upswing, making improvements in its operations and its financial performance.
By contrast, the passenger in question has a checkered past. He is often described as a "69-year-old doctor," which connotes a white-haired Dr. Kildare with a stethoscope and abundant concern for his patients. But this doctor lost his medical license for 10 years because he illegally prescribed painkillers.
Is his past relevant? This is a subject of endless Twitter discussions. Is United's reputation relevant? By some accounts, it is being destroyed.At this point, many details of the incident are widely known. A full 70-seat aircraft was about to depart when four crew members arrived. They needed seats because they were scheduled to fly out of Louisville the next morning. Had they not been seated, the morning flight would have been cancelled, likely inconveniencing several dozen paying passengers.
On the flight, United asked for volunteers to give up their seats. It offered $800. Nobody accepted. So United used a protocol to select passengers to be involuntarily denied boarding. These passengers are required to be compensated. Three people left. The doctor refused to leave.
In a letter to employees on Monday, United CEO Oscar Munoz described the subsequent events.
"When we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions," Munoz wrote.
"He was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent," he wrote.
"Our agents were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation security officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight. He repeatedly declined to leave.
"Chicago Aviation security officers were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist -- running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security," Munoz said.
In a second letter, as the outcry mounted, Munoz was more apologetic. In an appearance Wednesday on the Good Morning America TV show, he was even more so.
United warrants criticism for not offering higher compensation. The United supervisor who oversaw passenger removal should have realized that $800 isn't enough to get seated passengers to leave an aircraft.
It may be enough at the gate, but it's not enough once passengers are seated.
As for the rest of it, maybe someone who wasn't there can figure out how to quickly get someone off an airplane so that 66 other paying passengers can get to their destinations on time and then several dozen more passengers can get to their destinations the following morning.
A few hidden factors here: Due to federal regulations, crews can time out and not be able to fly any more on a given day. This becomes more likely late in the day. Without an available crew, a flight may be delayed for hours, or not depart at all. Also, it can be tough to get out of O'Hare. These sorts of things weigh on customer service supervisors.
But a 33-second video cannot show everything.
Sometimes it shows only enough to stir up the angry mob and point it toward the ticket counter.