The full story of what happened aboard a United Airlines flight this past weekend remains a mystery. We’ve all seen the video by now, and yet a few puzzling questions remain. An apparent doctor was on his way from Chicago to Louisville when he was accosted in his seat by authorities — dragged, covered in his own blood, from the plane after he was forced to vacate his seat due to the airlines overbooking Flight 3411.
The man’s behavior seemed oddly over-the-top, even for someone who was being ordered to miss his flight by no fault of his own. One video shows the man muttering to himself, “Just kill me. Just kill me.”
If the story played out the way it appears, United will surely continue to face an avalanche of accountability for what appears to be a colossal fuck-up. Regardless of the passenger’s behavior, there was no call for forcibly removing the man from his seat. None whatsoever. United officials explained that employees asked for volunteers, first offering $400 then $800 to compensate for rebooking them. When not enough volunteers accepted the offer, the airline randomly selected several names, including the name of the man who was eventually dragged screaming off the aircraft.
Two questions: why did the authorities use force, and why did the man resist so vehemently?
We’ll surely find out soon. In the meantime, it’s appropriate to have a conversation about the horrendousness of airline travel in the 21st Century. It’s kind of amazing this sort of fracas doesn’t happen more often, given the level of humiliation, inhuman stress and frustration we’re forced to endure while traveling by airplane in the post-9/11 world.
It’s not just a matter of security taking precedent over comfort and ease-of-movement. In the modern age, once ordinary travelers step into an airport, it’s an ongoing exercise in burying our pride and sense of decency. It’s everyone for themselves. In most cases, air travel has evolved into a series of interminable lines, adding at least two hours on the front end of a flight, and another hour at the tail end.
Yes, some of this has to do with increased and often cosmetic security enhancements — “the illusion of safety” as Tyler Durden put it — but so much of what we have to endure is simply about the airlines screwing their customers for profit, not unlike the man on the United flight.
Sure, airlines have a notoriously thin profit margin. But it’s difficult to understand how making the flying experience less comfortable and more frustrating will actually help. I recently flew from Oakland, CA to Los Angeles. Estimated flight time? One hour. It turns out, after all was said and done, I could’ve driven the five hours to LA and been there two hours before I arrived via airplane. Why? Delays, lines, headaches, traffic, baggage problems and so on.
The security process at just about every airport sucks, with stations like Orlando and LAX among the worst, where passengers are often forced to wait in a line before ever reaching the actual security line. Hell, we’ve managed to invent technology that allows 200 people to fly through the air, 35,000 feet above the ground, and yet they can’t come up with a better and more efficient security queue. We’re still wrangled into those zig-zag lines like cattle on our way to being hamburger. But before we get there, real life human beings have been replaced with kiosks that feel like SAT exams — one wrong button click on the touch-screens and suddenly our bags are in Germany. And at airports like Dulles, don’t expect any help at the baggage counter, either, where the staff doesn’t even work for the airline. It’s as if all of the airline CEOs looked at the old check-in process and said, “Fuck it. You people do it yourselves.”
The planes themselves haven’t grown faster, either. The economy of air travel is based on the fact that people are more concerned with cost than speed, hence why a flight from DC to Tampa, for example, takes roughly the same amount of time it did 30 years ago.
As a tall man, meanwhile, the seats are almost dangerously small with no leg room. If I want to avoid a blood clot in my legs, I have to pay extra for a premium seat, which is usually an exit row — an option that used to be free. I’ll sidestep any bitching about discrimination against tall people and move on.
Oh, and if you’re one of those people who gather in a mob at the gate as soon as the flight attendant announces priority seating, you’re part of the problem, too. Standing in a disorganized throng of people, some of whom are wearing pajamas in public, while others have long since abandoned the rules of society, doesn’t make any sense. 1) The plane isn’t going to leave without you, given you’re at the gate already. And 2) Of course, none of this would happen if they engineered a better means of boarding that didn’t involve forming a desperate posse shoved up against the gate door as if the Beatles are about to emerge in America for the first time.
All in all, the process of flying actually breeds the kind of incidents we witnessed on video this week. It’s a miracle more people don’t utterly snap while navigating these horror shows at the airports. Maybe now’s a good time to chat about how to re-engineer airline travel in a way that doesn’t push the limits of our mental health every time we need to fly.
When it comes to modern flying, “just kill me” sounds about right.