(Editor’s note: United Airlines executives announced late Friday they’ll no longer eject passengers from flights. Instead, the airline’s new policy is for flight crews to show up one hour early to make sure no customers are displaced. CNN reports that had the commuting crew members been required to check in for the flight before passengers began boarding, United could have avoided the altercation.)
There are many, many reasons you should thank your lucky stars every day if you’re an American expat in Europe.
Reasons such as one-tenth of one percent of the gun violence in the United States; the transportation infrastructure works (most of the time) and the airlines can’t give you an ass whuppin’, then throw you off their planes.
The violent ejection of Dr. David Dao, 69, last week from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to my hometown of Louisville was for many American travelers not a surprising event.
As fares have fallen and post- Great Recession demand has risen, the airlines have been slow to add flights or add larger aircraft. Flying long ago ceased being a civilized experience in the U.S.
But I would go so far as to say I don’t think Dr. Dao’s ejection from the United flight tells us as much about United Airlines and the shortcomings of the airline industry as it does about the current American mood and mindset.
In Europe, I can’t find a single news post documenting a passenger being beaten, then dragged off a plane. Why? Because in Europe, that’s considered bad form. You know … rule of law.
A dark mood in America
In the U.S., rule of law increasingly is viewed as a quaint, inconvenient concept from an out-of-fashion era of public civility.
Think about what happened at Donald Trump campaign rallies when anyone dared protest. They immediately were set upon by the crowd at the now-president’s urging. Trump went so far as to tell his supporters to “knock the crap out ’em. Seriously … I’ll promise you I will pay for the legal fees ….”
Did protesters have the right to be in a public event in a public place? Absolutely. But being in the right offers precious little practical protection when you’re being physically attacked.
Again, in Louisville, at Trump’s urging, supporters attacked three protesters during a primary rally in March, 2016. The president and the assailants are now in court, up on charges of inciting violence.
So, should we be surprised this Trumpian mentality is working its way into the private sector?
While the majority of Americans were appalled by United personnel’s handling of the Dao incident, a significant minority posted on Facebook and other social media that people should “do what they’re told.” That it’s up to the police to decide what’s legal and proper and forget inconvenient formalities such as codified law, regulations or negotiations; ie, “Knock the crap out of him. We’ll cover your legal expenses.”
The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville even published an exposé inferring that Dr. Dao essentially had this coming because he’d been in trouble with the law 17 years ago.
Since Trump came to power, there’s less concern about what the PR people call “the optics” of a given situation, and more willingness to give into the darker angels of our character because punishing people (whether they deserve it or not) feels soooo good.
Different cultures, different rules for airlines
For the record, Dao was never arrested and taken into custody. In fact, he popped up back on board the flight after his beating. So police never used their arrest powers on the plane, which is under the command of the pilot.
In Europe, by contrast, our experience shows civil discourse and rule of law are still valued.
Air travel in Europe is no different from the U.S. Most – though not all – airlines here overbook flights because it’s a simple form of hedging. A fairly predictable number of ticket holders don’t show up in time for departure, and the airlines run models that show some routes are more susceptible to no-shows than others.
In the United case, airline personnel decided after Dr. Dao had boarded they needed four seats for their own employees, which led to the confrontation.
In Europe, United would have had to deal with the problem before it became a problem.
It says so right here in the EU passenger rights regs EU 261/2004
(12) The trouble and inconvenience to passengers caused by cancellation of flights should also be reduced. This should be achieved by inducing carriers to inform passengers of cancellations before the scheduled time of departure and in addition to offer them reasonable re-routing, so that the passengers can make other arrangements. Air carriers should compensate passengers if they fail to do this, except when the cancellation occurs in extraordinary circumstances which could not have been avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken.
Translated, this means you should tell passengers about problems before the flight, not drag them off the plane after they’ve boarded.
Canadian officials issued a statement last week alerting all airlines operating in Canada that forcibly removing passengers from overbooked airplanes “will not be tolerated.”
Coincidentally, last January I flew the same Chicago-to-Louisville United flight Dao was on with no problems. On the way home, I was booked to fly from Washington DC to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. But the United desk assistants told me at check-in it was overbooked and asked if I were willing to fly out of Chicago to Amsterdam. I said sure … and they upgraded me!
The staff was super-nice and helpful, and I even went to their manager to make sure they were recognized.
Let’s compare that to a flight I took last May to Stockholm from Düsseldorf. There were issues with my passport, but the AirBerlin crew was cheerful and super-helpful.
Lack of legal redress
The problem in the States is, you alway know in the back of your mind that if things go wrong, there really is no legal or regulatory redress. That rule of law went out the window long ago.
Of course, culture certainly shapes legal and regulatory policy.
In the Netherlands where we live, the culture is communal. Physical confrontation is extremely rare and people are far less likely to sue each other. In Europe, when we had issues, EU regulations shift the dynamic in favor of the consumer, and we were made whole … without having to go to the hospital.
In the U.S., violence is ingrained in the culture and seeps increasingly into everyday life.
That no matter what the situation, those in power are always right, and you’re always wrong.
For flights within Europe, and on EU airlines anywhere in the world, passenger-rights regs dictate the airline pays inconvenienced passengers between 250 euros for the shortest flights to 600 euros for long-haul flights for anyone who is involuntarily denied boarding.
In the US, a sliding scale applies. If the airline is able to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation. If you get there between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you twice the one-way fare with a $675 maximum. And if you arrive more than two hours late (four hours internationally), the compensation is four times the one-way fare, to a maximum of $1,350.