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.