Kicking Passengers Off Planes: A United Captain Weighs In

The struggle to find a modus vivendi in the skies
Last month we went 15 rounds over the saga of the United flight from Denver to Baltimore that made an unscheduled stop in Chicago, so that a family could be taken off the plane by police. The parents' offense was to complain about a violent/sexy PG-13 movie that was being shown on the cabin's overhead screens in front of their two little boys. Even the movie's director wrote in to say that he never imagined that the film, Alex Cross, would be shown in general-viewing circumstances like this. You can get all the detail you want here or here.

Two reasons to follow up. First, a parents' group that has been petitioning United to change its movie-choice policy claims victory. Here's a note I received from one of its organizers:
We won! ...Our voice combined with other voices of journalists, traveling parents, and organizations like the Campaign for a Commericial Free Childhood made this happen.

I hoped to get the full policy from United Airlines to share with you.  But I am satisfied with this for now:

"From: "CustomerCare@united.com" <customercare@united.com>
To: D... 
Sent: Friday, May 3, 2013 12:57 AM
Subject: United Airlines - 

Dear Ms. xx:  
The policy change is that the standards are in line with guidelines of  
PG-rated movies.  More review may be underway, however this is internal 
company information.
Regards, 
Cxxxx 
Customer Care

Now who wants to contact American Airlines and Delta?!?"

Congratulations to the families that asked for the change. Apart from revising its movie policy, as best I can tell United has never apologized for or acknowledged the original over-reaction -- that of humiliating the family by turning them over to the police. I've had no followup beyond the opaque statement I quoted a month ago. 


Next, a very interesting dispatch from another United pilot. This note is actually in response to an incident reported by someone else: Matthew Klint, who was kicked off a flight from Newark to Istanbul after a flight attendant (falsely) told the captain that he was disobeying orders to stop taking photos. The whole tale is almost too bizarre to be believed, but you can scroll through the follow-up accounts here. The essential point is that a number of other passengers later confirmed that the flight attendant had over-reacted and misled the captain about what Mr. Klint was doing, but the captain nonetheless made him leave the plane (and miss connecting flights and meetings) before it took off.

I know the real name of the pilot who sent in the note below, but he (or she) has understandably asked me not to use it. Worth reading:
I am a Captain with United Airlines. I have been with UA for over 25 years. There is no excuse for the way you [actually Matthew Klint] were treated on your Newark Istanbul flight.

Let me tell you how the incident should have been handled. I had a very similar incident on a Las Vegas-Dulles flight. A flight attendant told me of a disruptive passenger that would not move his underage son out of the exit row. I went out of the cockpit to see what was going on. I went to Customer Service and had them come back to the airplane. I spoke with the man. I wanted to hear his side of the story. He began to tell me how UA had put his special needs son in a different row than him. He had moved the child to the row because the FA had not listened to him, but ordered him to move the boy. While he was telling me his side the FA immediately tried to interrupt. I told her to let the man speak. When he was through I told him not to worry the Customer Service person would re-seat them so that we could get on our way.

I wanted to point out the difference in approach to the situation. The flight attendant had told me what she thought was going on. She told me how they had to move or be thrown off the airplane. As a professional I wanted to get all the facts before just arbitrarily removing someone from the airplane. The situation was defused and we went on our way.

I did not come out of the cockpit with the preconceived notion that I was going to throw someone off the ac. In your situation I would not have overreacted over pictures. I did not know such a rule even existed. I am confused about the picture thing anyway. I would have listened to you before I made a determination whether you had to leave.

You need to know that United was not always so anti passenger in the past. Since continental took over our management they have brought in all kinds of rather strange and illogical rules.

1. You cannot take pictures, I assume because of security, but they are paying to have the secondary barriers that protect the cockpit removed from our aircraft.

2. You cannot pay cash for your food or drinks in coach.

3. You can order special meals such as Hindu, but you will most likely get a burger because management is from Texas and everyone likes beef right? (Didn't work out so well with a group of Indian Hindu engineers in First Class coming from London. You know the sacred cow and all. I apologized to them, but the damage was done.)

We are supposed to speak to our CEO like he is a close friend or something. If you don't call him Jeff he becomes upset. [JF note: This is Jeff Smisek, well known to all United travelers because of the video ads featuring him that precede the safety instructions on each flight.] They call everyone co-workers. They setup a human resource complaint system so that anyone can file formal complaints against their fellow workers for the littlest thing. You can be terminated. We have over 200 complaints being investigated just for the pilots so far.

My point is the new UA management is anti-employee as well as anti-passenger. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone. Some people handle it differently than others. I think your case is a perfect example.

I on behalf of all United Airlines employees would like to apologize to you to your ordeal. Management might think they are too important to apologize, but I think you would find the people that make the airline work don't think that way.

I appreciate the care that went into this note, and want to take the chance to say again that when there is a troubled corporate culture, the tone is almost always set at the top. I'm also grateful to the other United employees with whom I've had interesting and revealing talks in the (many) trips I've taken in the past month.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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