Commentary: United Airlines, and what Aretha said

By John Krull
TheStatehouseFile.com 

INDIANAPOLIS – The skies of United, it turns out, aren’t so friendly, after all.

United Airlines has become the butt of a million jokes, the focus of intense criticism and even the subject of congressional inquiry after employees for the airline ordered a 69-year-old man to surrender his seat on a Chicago-to-Louisville flight.

John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com

Another United employee apparently wanted the spot. The passenger, a doctor from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, refused, saying he had patients to meet the next morning.

The United employees called airport security. The doctor still protested. Security officers pulled him from his seat, apparently banging his head on an armrest as they did so.

Then they dragged his limp, bleeding body from the plane.

Other passengers, many of whom could be heard complaining about the way the doctor was being treated, captured video of the incident on their cellphones.

Thanks to the power of social media, the United debacle immediately became a firestorm – a firestorm the corporate geniuses at the airline tried to put out by pouring jet fuel over it.

United’s chief executive Oscar Munoz first tried to blame the doctor, who remains hospitalized, for the incident. He said the doctor had been belligerent and that was why he’d been removed. Munoz said he supported the United employees’ approach to dealing with the “unruly” passenger.

Neither the video of the incident nor the other passengers’ testimony supported Munoz’s fanciful interpretation.

While Munoz indulged the fantasy that he could pin his company’s mess on the still dazed doctor, late-night comedians had a field day, mock United commercials and memes multiplied like missed connections and the airline’s stock tumbled.

Finally, Munoz did what both common decency and common sense should have dictated from the beginning.

He apologized.

And he pledged to investigate the incident and review United’s practices regarding overbooking flights and bumping passengers – both literally and figuratively.

Munoz’s apology slowed United’s bleeding but didn’t stop it.

The airline’s stock prices may have broken out of free fall, but many, many frequent air travelers – this one included – now likely will be reluctant to fly United if there is any other choice available to them.

The airline doubtless will be able to recover some, maybe even most, of the damaged consumer confidence.

But it will take time.

And time, as businesspeople love to lecture everyone, is money.

In this case, it’s lost money.

Lots of it.

There are reasons this demeaning episode captured the massive attention that it did. It crystalizes the seething resentment alive in the land.

The thread connecting disruptions in our politics (the Trump and Sanders campaigns, the battles over equal rights for the LGBTQ community and religious freedom), our streets (Black Lives Matter, Police Lives Matter) and now the marketplace is a demand for respect, for basic consideration of one’s dignity and worth as a human being.

People – right, left and center – are tired of being told that what they want and what they believe really doesn’t matter.

That they don’t matter.

In this case, the doctor from Kentucky had paid good money for his seat. It appears that the United employees demanded that he surrender it without much in the way of an apology or any expression of sincere regret for the disruption doing so would cause him.

When the doctor refused to concede that both he and his needs were disposable, security officials, at United’s prompting, dragged him from the plane as if he were an overstuffed trash bag.

That’s why this episode resonated with such power.

It symbolized the disregard for human worth that dominates so much of our culture today.

People ask how we might make our way out of the angry age in which we now live.

The path forward starts with that thing Aretha Franklin, the thing United so blatantly violated.

You know, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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