Do law enforcement officers have agency?

Something happened on a United Airlines flight.

passengers were allowed to board the flight but were later told four people would need to give up their seats for four United employees who were needed in Louisville on Monday.

She said no passengers volunteered, so a manager came aboard and said passengers would be randomly selected and asked to leave.

A man was selected and refused to leave. Three men came to drag him out. I haven’t seen the video, but based on everyone’s reaction, it doesn’t sound like the amount of force applied exceeded the minimum necessary to remove him from the plane. Children reportedly can be heard crying in the background. The passenger was later allowed to return to the aircraft, albeit bloodied.

Understandably, people are very mad at United with many promising never to fly them again. I doubt these people will feel they are missing much; United must say a prayer every night for Comcast, for they are the one thing keeping them out of the top spot for most-hated company in America.

Still, I can’t hope but notice that the anger is directed solely at United. The three men who arrived and abused the man were law enforcement, not United employees. It would seem unlikely that United would have offered these men instructions to rough up their passenger. Nevertheless, some people, including actual Harvard lawyers, think that the passenger will end up easily winning a large lawsuit judgment against the company.

I deduce from this that a lot of people basically agree with my analogy that law enforcement are like cobras. If you bring law enforcement into a situation, you don’t know what might happen, but you can’t claim complete innocence if someone is bitten.

snakes plane photo

Image by illustir

I have scoured Twitter and a couple of news sites, and I have yet to see a single take that acknowledges law enforcement agency. No one, to my knowledge, has asked “why didn’t those guys just not beat that guy up?”

Once United called law enforcement, they had to be beaten up just as surely as if they had thrown a cobra at that passenger he would be bit. No one would blame the cobra, just as no one blames the officers today. That they could react a different way doesn’t enter the mind as a possibility.

None of this is to say you should fly United or forgive them. If you do believe that United bears responsibility for what happened though, then your opinion of law enforcement is not so different from mine.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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158 thoughts on “Do law enforcement officers have agency?

  1. There is a utility in being thought of as a cobra, but a cost as well, and that cost has to be demoralizing to officers who would just as well as never cause harm to another.

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    • They are enforcing a property right which is what law enforcement does.

      Imagine someone showed up at your house, occupied it, and refused to leave. Wouldn’t you want law enforcement to show up and arrest the person for trespass?

      This is the same situation because an airline ticket purchase is not a right to a seat and airlines have a right to removed disruptive passengers though most would hopefully not be as blunt about it.

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      • Imagine someone showed up at your house, occupied it, and refused to leave. Wouldn’t you want law enforcement to show up and arrest the person for trespass?

        Imagine that I ran a B&B and they came over and I put them in the room per the terms of the contract that we signed. Then I wanted to have my friend sleep in the room instead of the customer whose money I had just accepted.

        Why in the hell would the cops show up for that?

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        • I’m pretty sure they would, especially if there was a set of laws governing how you’d compensate your customer for the cancellation. At some point, “Please leave my property,” is eventually enforced with an, “Or else.” It’s pretty common on this type of site to point out that taxes are collected “at gunpoint.” Private property rights are enforced the same way.

          That’s not to say that United made a particularly sensible decision. It’s pretty easy to just offer better compensation and get somebody to leave voluntarily. It’s unlikely that they plane was full of millionaires who couldn’t be bought off with a tiny fraction of what this ridiculous sideshow is costing them.

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          • I’m not arguing that there are no circumstances under which it is appropriate to call the police when someone is trespassing.

            I’m arguing that these circumstances are not those circumstances, like, not even close. These circumstances cannot be confused for those circumstances even if you squint and tilt your head a little.

            The stock went down today, which is good. It was fluctuating for a bit and, a couple of times, looked like it was going up.

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      • Imagine someone showed up at your house, occupied it, and refused to leave. Wouldn’t you want law enforcement to show up and arrest the person for trespass?

        The issue in most such situations is the officer’s imperfect knowledge of the situation and the law. Whose house or business really is it? What are their legal rights to be there? I imagine most situations in which officers must forcibly remove a person from a property involve a belligerent spouse or customer whom the officers ultimately choose to remove not as a legal judgment, but to reduce the possibility of imminent violence.

        Although further details are forthcoming, it seems clear that the customer in question here presented no possibility of imminent violence. Although legal opinion seems to be firmly on United’s side in terms of the customer’s right to be on the plane, how could the officer at the time have known that? His deference to the wishes of the United bureaucracy seems symptomatic of a general corporate-fascist mindset, or at least a violation of the principle of equality before the law.

        Or so I perceive the latent reasoning driving the general public’s reaction to be.

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        • … it seems clear that the customer in question here presented no possibility of imminent violence.

          The airplane has a passenger who is out of control and refusing the orders of the crew. That, by itself, is probably bad enough the airline can’t leave the ground and if they were in the air, they’d have to land.

          Normally that sort of situation happens because the passenger is drunk or has lost control of their emotions. I’d think these protocols and laws were written around the idea that “out of control” is also “may cause airplane crash”.

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    • Is this part of what law enforcement, you know, does? Enforce corporate policy? That seems… that seems really, really unwise.

      It is, or at least it is within certain parameters. Most businesses have policies where, if a person has been asked to leave and refuses to do so, police are called in rather than employees attempting to begin a physical altercation. And that is usually the policy because the assumption is that police are better trained at both defusing situations and defending themselves than are the rest of us. The times I’ve seen it most, you have a customer who is either inebriated, mentally ill, or both, and have taken a fairly belligerent, hostile, and or threatening position with the staff.

      This is not to say that calling the police was warranted by United, or that the police’s reaction was remotely warranted, or that police necessarily should be given that responsibility.

      But you asked, and the answer is that it’s pretty universal, at least to my knowledge.

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      • Tod,

        I think the issue here is that cops were called in to enforce a crappy corporate policy, not to rid the business of a loudmouthed peace-disturbing drunk or irrational gun-wielding housewife, both of which are illegal in lots of contexts. As far as I know, there’s nothing illegal about over-booking flights but there IS something illegal about assaulting a paying customer who won’t “voluntarily” agree to surrender a purchased service.

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      • It seems a difference of degree when we’re talking about individuals who are either inebriated, mentally ill, or both, and have taken a fairly belligerent, hostile, and or threatening position with the staff versus a guy getting seated on his flight and sitting there. Like, a difference of degree that is great enough to become a difference of kind.

        My only evidence for this is that it has been announced that the officer who did this has been put on leave.

        Paid leave, presumably.

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        • Like, a difference of degree that is great enough to become a difference of kind.

          Like, the difference between cops choke-holding individuals engaging in illegal or threat-to-public-or-themselves activity, and cops choke-holding a dude because he doesn’t agree to give up his bought and paid for seat.

          We live in crazy times, but it seems pretty clear that the role of the police shouldn’t include assaulting paying customers so that a corporations internal prerogatives are realized.

          That’s fascism dude. :)

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  2. The problem here is that United technically had the law on their side but not the optics.

    A plane ticket is not a right to a seat. You can read this in the very small fine print. The problem is that airlines overbook with the expectancy that there will be no-shows and then people will give up spaces out of good will. From what I’ve read, airlines are capped at offering beyond 1300 dollars in compensation for seats (which should be changed). A lot of people are also increasingly unwilling to give up seats because it means less vacation time or having their work reputations take a hit.

    As to law enforcement, perhaps people are just cynical. Or perhaps people who read blogs with generally liberal to libertarian bents are going to be a lot more down with law enforcement than the general population. I am a big fan of officers being trained in learning conflict resolution and how to calm a situation down but that takes time and money. LEOs were told that someone was trespassing (technically right) and refusing to leave (also technically right) and acted accordingly to that analysis in their view.

    I’m just in a cynical mood lately.

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    • I’d be interested in one of the lawyers around here digging into the max compensation question; I’ve seen conflicting things about it.

      Though in regards to this particular case, it seems like United still had significant room to increase their offer even if it applies.

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        • One suspects that they’re losing more in PR and any legal proceedings than they would have had to bid to find more volunteers, though perhaps the current policy is loss-minimizing over their whole operation (since presumably most people picked just accept it, producing less of an issue).

          The knee-jerk libertarian hypothesis on a cap is that it reeks of regulatory capture: it gives airlines a predictable maximum cost/passenger removed and limits one method of competing on customer service.

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        • I’ve never heard of a compensation cap, but the compensation offer is a libertarian idea (IIRC), since back in the day airlines did just pull passengers, and suffered business for it.

          A cap does reek of capture, since it limits the airlines from finding the actual price passengers will accept, which restricts the price signals that would inform them as to the true cost of overbooking.

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          • Yes, this. The idea of compensation came from people being upset at being bumped all the time. Compensation actually ended up being helpful for customer satisfaction since it usually goes to someone who doesn’t mind delaying their flight anyway.

            The cap on compensation is very much there to protect the airlines from having to actually pay for the inconvenience they are actually causing. It gives the airlines an out: “Hey, it’s literally illegal for us to compensate you!” but the cap itself is the result of airline industry lobbying

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            • THIS.

              Because you know there are going to be too damn many conditions attached to when and how you can use the vouchers.

              If they really gave a flip about “customer service” and if it was a real emergency where they needed those seats, they’d start by offering cash. I daresay people would take half the cash that they’d accept in vouchers – unless I was going to miss a loved one’s funeral or a crucial job interview, I’d probably get off for $200, a hotel room overnight, and a rebooked flight. Wouldn’t be so willing even for a $400 voucher.

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            • Actually, you can demand cash — and legally they have to give it to you. There’s a minimum amount that varies depending on how quickly they can get you to your destination after bumping you.

              Vouchers are just their preferred method of paying you that money. (Especially because they have restrictions like “one voucher per flight” and if they offer you 600 dollars in vouchers, it’ll be 6 100 dollar vouchers. And they have expiration dates).

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          • There is no compensation cap. This is a meme created by folks either intentionally or unintentionally misreading the relevant regulations in order to shift the blame to the government instead of United. There is a required compensation floor of 4x the ticket or $1350, whichever is less, for involuntary bumps. However, nothing stops the airlines from paying more. My wife and I took a bump for $1500 a pop on X-mas Eve because we’d still make it to her folks’ place in time for the required festivities. These required amounts were because airlines would involuntarily bump and say FYTW.

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            • I can assure you that if I am mistaken, it is unintentional. I am going off of this, which doesn’t sound like a compensation floor but instead a maximum https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/250.5 :

              § 250.5 Amount of denied boarding compensation for passengers denied boarding involuntarily.

              (a) Subject to the exceptions provided in § 250.6, a carrier to whom this part applies as described in § 250.2 shall pay compensation in interstate air transportation to passengers who are denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight as follows:

              (1) No compensation is required if the carrier offers alternate transportation that, at the time the arrangement is made, is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s first stopover, or if none, the airport of the passenger’s final destination not later than one hour after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight;

              (2) Compensation shall be 200% of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $675, if the carrier offers alternate transportation that, at the time the arrangement is made, is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s first stopover, or if none, the airport of the passenger’s final destination more than one hour but less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight; and

              (3) Compensation shall be 400% of the fare to the passenger’s destination or first stopover, with a maximum of $1,350, if the carrier does not offer alternate transportation that, at the time the arrangement is made, is planned to arrive at the airport of the passenger’s first stopover, or if none, the airport of the passenger’s final destination less than two hours after the planned arrival time of the passenger’s original flight.

              [emphases both removed and added]

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                • Also, it’s not a maximum that can be given, it’s a cap on the minimum required compensation. It says that the airline must give at least 4x the ticket or $1,350, whichever is less, for an involuntary denial. Granted, there is no reason for them to give more since an involuntary denial explicitly means no negotiation.

                  There are no requirements around voluntary ones.

                  DOT has not mandated the form or amount of compensation that airlines offer to volunteers. DOT does, however, require airlines to advise any volunteer whether he or she might be involuntarily bumped and, if that were to occur, the amount of compensation that would be due. Carriers can negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation. Airlines generally offer a free trip or other transportation benefits to prospective volunteers. The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. If the airline offers you a free ticket or a transportation voucher in a certain dollar amount, ask about restrictions. How long is the ticket or voucher good for? Is it “blacked out” during holiday periods when you might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights?

                  https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights

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      • I think a lot of people are misunderstanding the ‘max’ thing.

        The law, as far as I can figure out, says that if airlines force someone off an otherwise operational flight, the airline has to pay them 100% of the cost of the ticket if it rebooks them so they end up less than an hour later, 200% if they end up no more than two (or maybe four?) hours later, or 400% if they end up later than that. (Which weirdly seems to imply at that point the airline don’t even have to try to get them to their destination. I mean, they might technically have to give a ticket, but it could apparently be a ticket eighty years from now.)

        There is no ‘max’. That is the amount *required by law*, but nothing stops airlines from offering more…or even less, because when it’s *offered*, it’s *offer*, and can be any amount.

        The 400% is the amount the airline *must* pay when the passenger is *unwilling* to give up their seat but is not allowed anyway.

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    • I’d not heard of the cap on compensation. I’ve deferred flights in the past when I was a student, and considered the free ticket for a later flight and the meal voucher sufficient compensation for my inconvenience. One time I got an upgrade to first class on my later flight in addition, so I felt very well-treated. Was that worth $1,300? Probably not, especially not to the airline.

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    • United’s Contract of Carriage Section 21 mentions removal of passengers under certain conditions (none of which is an overbooked flight), and Section 25 mentions compensation for passengers who are denied boarding. It doesn’t seem to address removal of seated passengers who don’t fit in Section 21.

      The catalyst for this whole situation was United not handling the seating shortage pre-boarding.

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    • From what I’ve read, airlines are capped at offering beyond 1300 dollars in compensation for seats (which should be changed).

      Unless I’m misremembering the rules, $1300 is the maximum amount they might be mandated by law to pay out. If they bump you from a flight, there are federal laws mandating some minimum amount of compensation and I think that number tops out at $1300. I don’t think there’s actually any law preventing them from offering you a big sack of cash and a pony if they choose to.

      If I’m wrong about that, it’s a pretty ugly situation that should be fixed, because it will inevitably cause more stuff like this to happen.

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  3. A lot of people are also just very conflict adverse and when they see a conflict (especially one that might involve violence, they are likely to turn away).

    People on this blog are probably less conflict adverse than average. We are willing to spend lots of time arguing politics and policy with strangers we will largely never meet and to do so with the battle axes politely sharpened and ready.

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    • Eh, I dunno. It’s one thing to have an intellectual disagreement via electronic communications. There’s sometimes a moment of sting when you see someone’s words disagreeing with yours or pointing out an error in your argument. But that’s a good deal different than some actual person, in your face, disagreeing with you. On the internet, no one can see when you’re nervous and the time you take to respond to a challenge isn’t quite so crucial.

      I strongly suspect that there’s a great many people look at what we attorneys do and recoil in fear from the pressure and confrontation inherent in the vocation — including people who don’t mind a bit getting into a spat on facebook or twitter or a blog.

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  4. I’d love to hear Tod weigh in on this as a risk-assessment guy…

    It’s about 5.5 hours from Chicago to the Louisville airport. If moving the crew was really that important, United could have paid for a very nice ride for it’s employees, one which allowed them to get some sleep while in-transit, for maybe $1,000 and left those passengers alone. Instead they did this and it will cost them millions in bad publicity.

    I really do not understand the way some people make business decisions. I am thankful every day that I have a social science background in a corporate setting. It really feels like it helps me see the human side of these situations.

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    • Alsotoo couldn’t United have got a jumpseat on a competitor’s plane on a trade-favors basis? Or, again assuming that getting that particular crew there was important enough, just bought a ticket for their employee(s) who couldn’t jumpseat on this flight?

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    • I’d love to hear Tod weigh in on this as a risk-assessment guy

      Honestly, if I put on my Risk Manager Hat, I’m mostly hit by two things:

      1. We think we know everything we need to know about this because of the video, but we really know very little.

      The way that I’ve seen this portrayed in social media over the past 24 hours is, basically, a) Airline overbooks and has to bump passenger, b) random passenger does not want to be put on standby and won’t leave the plane, and c) airline call cops who come in and violently drag him from plane.

      There’s a ton missing from that reading of what happened.

      Why did United need extra employees on that plane, and not another, if they in fact actually did? How did they decide to randomly pick four passengers, and what does it even mean that they “randomly” did so? How was this communicated to the passengers as the need unfolded? What was the deal with the man on the video? Was his resistance a kind of Bartleby the Scriver resistance, which is what I think most people seem to be assuming, or was his resistance more hostile and threatening to staff, police, and fellow passengers? I know that airlines sometimes use over-booking as a hopefully non-confrontational excuse to remove passengers who, for whatever reason, the steward staff is worried about due their behavior during boarding. Was this such a case? What exactly transpired, real or imagined, that made the staff decide that calling law enforcement was a step that should be taken? When law enforcement arrived, in what way did escalation occur? Overarching all of this, who at United exactly made each of the decisions as they were being made, did they have the authority to make the decisions that they did, and did those decisions correspond with United protocol?

      All of which is to say that my reaction to this case has mostly been a dispassionate one, because what happened has all the triggers to set me into those modes of thinking that don’t magically disappear once you retire.

      And honestly, chances are that we will never really know exactly what happened. But United likely will, and then the challenge for them will be what to do with that once they’re done with their internal investigations, because they cannot allow anything remotely like this to ever happen again.

      2. Regardless of what happened and why, there is no question that this wa a complete breakdown of best practices.

      Somewhere in the process, someone(s) got too involved looked at the at-the-moment problem and ignored the entire bigger picture. Regardless of what exactly happened that set everything in motion, it should never have gone down like this. Any time you have a customer dragged out of your business bleeding, you’ve fished up somewhere. That it was videoed doesn’t change the degree of fish up, but it sure as hall increases the level of price you’re going to pay for that fish up.

      It’s been inserting to me to see that on my FB this morning, the predictable binary-driven opinion backlash has inevitably occurred, and now — surprise — people are posting that United did everything right (and should perhaps even be celebrated!) and that the guy got what was coming to him. I cannot put into strong enough words how people that come to this conclusion should never, ever, ever be put into positions where they make those kind of decisions for their employers.

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  5. Ah, how much things have changed.

    Long ago (dinosaurs no longer roamed the Earth, but were still in living memory) I worked for a giant Denver-based corporation that cut a deal with Continental. Part of it was that if we — giant corporation employees — got to the gate before the plane pulled away, Continental would get us on. On a trip to NJ, everything that could go wrong on my drive back to Newark Airport did, and I got to the gate after the door was closed but before the plane moved away. I don’t know what came up on the screen when the woman at the gate put my ticket information in (at my insistent that she do so, because there was a deal), but she ran to the phone by the door and spoke with someone on the plane. A few minutes later a senior Continental captain came up the jetway with his suitcase. They hurried me down, grabbed my stuff, pushed me into a first class seat. Brought me wine and let me keep the glass while the plane taxied and took off.

    I am getting to be so old…

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  6. Good point, Vik. This seems more similar to a Pinkerton’s action than normal policing to me. Tell the cops an unruly bastard is getting disruptive, that he looks unAmerican in an Asiany sorta way, then stand back and watch till peace is restored.

    Add: Well, it looks a lot like normal policing, too, unfortunately.

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  7. No, they were not trespassing. It is their seat for the duration of the flight, as they was boarded and seated by United. (I would think its hard to prove trespassing when you invite them in, and hard to kick them out legally when they have paid.) I also find it hard to prove trespassing when you just asked people to voluntarily go, but when it come to the law these days, who knows.

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    • Seems that the re-working of the internal policy will be to flag your “random” involuntary volunteers *before* they board. With computerized boarding these days, just have the machine flash red and ask you to go to the ticket counter for a message. (The message that you aren’t getting on this flight).

      Also, random seems odd… I could understand a reverse priority system where your lowest fare, lowest loyalty passenger would already be known in the system – hence the pre-board flagging in an over-booked situation.

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  8. No one, to my knowledge, has asked “why didn’t those guys just not beat that guy up?”

    You must be looking at a different video. What I see is “minimum force which lets law enforcement win”.

    Multiple people had already tried talking him out of his seat, one assumes law enforcement did that as well.

    So assuming whoever *can’t* be talked out of whatever… does that mean law enforcement loses? The entire plane is held hostage for as long as that person refuses to cooperate with the law? How long is a reasonable period of time to hold up the show?

    And note that’s *only* addressing law enforcement’s role in this. IMHO United should be forced to just keeping raising the price offered until someone steps forward.

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      • Given that he was chosen randomly, they could have always tried talking someone else into it.

        Which “they”?

        They-the-police couldn’t try talking someone else into it because their marching orders were “this person is on the airplane illegally, deal with it”. They didn’t pick “randomly” because that’s not their job and lazy-cop’s method would be to grab someone in the first row.

        They-United should have tried “upping the price until it makes/meets the market”. The odds that everyone has to make the flight or “someone will die” (I’ll miss my wedding, whatever) are exceptionally low. However odds are great that “someone” on the airplane is in that situation and choosing randomly may have really bad outcomes. Bloodying someone isn’t the bottom of the barrel.

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          • Yeah, this seems like a very big thing to be leaving out.

            On top of that, let’s say that it was determined that the guy sitting in the seat that he purchased and was sitting in (quietly, might I add) had his contract volunteered away from him without his consent.

            WHY IN THE HELL IS THAT A MATTER FOR THE COPS TO ENFORCE

            I can appreciate the argument that United has every right to withhold service to whomever they want and yank it at any moment for whatever whim passes their fancy. Sure. Let’s go with that.

            It’s the whole thing of police acting as private security on behalf of United that has me saying THAT’S NOT WHAT POLICE ARE FOR.

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          • Is there any onus on United to in fact prove he’s in violation of a law?

            I thought we had already decided that he was. That despite the optics (and sanity) of the situation, United technically does have the law on their side.

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      • That’s good for that one iteration of the game, but it sets the precedent that you can become “bump proof” simply by refusing to go.

        I suppose that for a while, that will do the same thing the compensation offer does: Bump somebody who doesn’t want it as much as you do. But what happens when everybody learns that the “bump” is unenforceable and nobody leaves voluntarily?

        (The obvious answer should be, “Sweeten the offer until somebody leaves,” but apparently that’s off the table.)

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          • This is very true–a policy that says that you’re good once you take a seat makes sense. The logistics and difficulties associated with yanking somebody off the plane don’t seem worth it.

            But again, some cash would solve the problem pretty easily. There’s a price between zero dollars and a hundred billion dollars that will peel one person off the plane. I doubt that they’d bankrupt themselves before they found the number.

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            • This is very true–a policy that says that you’re good once you take a seat makes sense. The logistics and difficulties associated with yanking somebody off the plane don’t seem worth it.

              I can’t figure out how this makes sense *anyway*.

              I mean, aren’t there security issues at some point? I know they have big flip out when someone’s luggage gets on a plane and they do not….this guy could have *carried anything* on the plane! You don’t know that he left with his carryon!

              Or does it not matter if they’re randomly select? Except they asked for volunteers, first, so if someone really wants to do something malicious to a plane without them on it, it seems like the plan would be to pick a bunch of overbooked flights, hook the malicious thing in the luggage up to a non-broadcasting wifi thing or something so you can disable it wit your phone if you *don’t* get bumped, and just keep flying. (Yes, this sounds stupid, but it’s no more stupid than lots of stuff we apparently are really worried about on airplanes.)

              And, there’s the practical problem that you now need to get his luggage off the plane.

              And…look, the entire point of this sort of ‘deadheading’, from what I understand, is that it uses *spare* seats on the airplane, the leftover seats.

              If the people who work for you *have to* get somewhere, and *have to* be on the flight, they *should have tickets*, you idiots. Tickets, you know, those things you can give to them *for free* because, duh, you’re the airline? And then board first. (Not that you have to tell anyone they’re boarding first. They should just know to do it.)

              But again, some cash would solve the problem pretty easily. There’s a price between zero dollars and a hundred billion dollars that will peel one person off the plane. I doubt that they’d bankrupt themselves before they found the number.

              A much smarter thing would be not entering this situation in the first place.

              I find it completely absurd that the solution wasn’t United notifying themselves, and other airlines at that airport, ‘Oh, crap, we *have* to get these four people to X. They weren’t able to fit on the plane we thought they could, and now *anyone* with a flight in that direction needs to let them on first or hold four seats until they get here. If it’s not a United flight, we will double our traditional traded seats with you and offer you eight on a flight of your choice.’

              I.e., trying to pay people for their seat should only effect the *first* attempted flight. If that fails, they *should be first in line for the next flight*. (Hell, they should have been first in line for the *first* flight, but whatever.)

              If we’re talking about a schedule so tight that *waiting for the next flight* would screw some other flight that those guys needed to be on up, I have point out that *airplanes get delayed all the time*, so United is running things *way too close*. Just-in-time production is one thing…just-in-time service-personal-needed-for-a-scheduled-event is another!

              The heart of this is really some extremely stupid staff scheduling. Either United was operating at some sort of razor-thin edge for staffing and desperately needed people in a different place or things would fail (Which is a dumb way to operate a company) or they didn’t actually *need* those people moved that fast but no one who *realized* that was in a decision-making capacity here.

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          • I wonder how atypical it really is. I haven’t flown much in recent decades, but I remember sitting on a plane years ago and listening to an airline employee ask for volunteers to leave.

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      • I look at this and I think of myself on a plane, in a situation where someone else has been picked. Does everyone else turn and stare at me: solo traveler, college professor probably not going anywhere that urgent, person who projects a certain meekness, and then they all look daggers at me, willing me to sigh and go, “Okay, I’ll give up my seat.” For a voucher I don’t want, a cruddy hotel room in what is probably a loud airport hotel, and a delay where-ever I was going to. (Which, with as little as I travel, might mean me missing the time of my talk at the conference).

        Coercion is creepy. I’m still bugged by the idea that they threw people off the plane to allow seats for four of their employees. Yes, employment law, but….

        Even if they didn’t bring in “hired goons” to bodily carry the guy out, the level of coercion in the whole situation is awful.

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    • You must be looking at a different video. What I see is “minimum force which lets law enforcement win”.

      Herein lies the heart of our problem. It’s very important to some folks that law enforcement win, that everyone respects their AUTHORITAH.

      So assuming whoever *can’t* be talked out of whatever… does that mean law enforcement loses? The entire plane is held hostage for as long as that person refuses to cooperate with the law? How long is a reasonable period of time to hold up the show?

      Here is another perspective: maybe we ought to disaggregate a successful and peaceful resolution of the incident from whether law enforcement wins or loses. This isn’t a hard concept and it happens all the time when law enforcement is dealing with the right people in the right circumstances. Remember the OJ chase? That was a number of discrete encounters that law enforcement definitively lost, from allowing OJ to surrender himself, to clearing the freeway, to allowing him to sit in his car and in his home for a couple of hours until he was ready to surrender peacefully.

      Should every confrontation be like the OJ case? No. But certainly it wouldn’t be too far out of bounds for law enforcement to say to United, “Look, if this guy presents a danger, we’ll go in there with the necessary amount of force to make sure no one gets hurt. But in the meantime, we’re going to ask that you continue to look for a more peaceful resolution to this situation.” Yeah, that’s probably not what Dirty Harry would have done, but maybe it’s time we started looking for better policing role models.

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      • Except that if someone is trespassing on your property and you call the cops, they aren’t usually in the business of asking you to reason with that person. They they use the force necessary to remove them.

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        • It’s funny how many people believe in the free market when it screws people (OK, especially when it screws people) but not when it might cost a corporation money.

          If United needs four people off the plane, it can raise the bidding until they get four people.

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            • As you say:

              They they use the force necessary to remove them.

              Not their job to employ reason, just force.

              How about you try harder? Or perhaps the police should? Violence & Force are one set of tools in the toolbox of conflict resolution, but they should always be the very last tool employed*. Yet so often police pull that one out pretty early on, because it is expedient. As notes elsewhere, if the right people are at issue, it’s amazing how hesitant police are to employ force, and how much time they are willing to spend to avoid using force.

              *Obviously this goes out the window if force is truly deployed against the police. And I say ‘truly’ because police have shown they are not above manufacturing claims of force deployed against them.

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              • “Not their job to employ reason, just force.”

                Well. If we tell the police they can employ reason then some of them are going to reason that four black men driving a late-model SUV at two AM are up to no good and need to show proof of residence and ownership, preferably from the prone position. And others are going to reason that this particular white dude looks like a fine upstanding member of the community and so this chick who claims he raped her is either lying or crazy.

                So if you want to let cops reason then we need to accept that sometimes they’re going to reason in ways we don’t want.

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                  • We certainly have more than two choices.

                    The question is, what do we do when someone given the authority to choose makes a choice that, on seeing the outcome, we decide was bad

                    Do we tell them “sorry, you were a bad person for choosing that option, now you’ll be punished pour encourager les autres“? Because, well, after a little while of doing that we’re back to having only two choices after all.

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      • It’s very important to some folks that law enforcement win, that everyone respects their AUTHORITAH.

        The police are entrusted to resolve situations, by force if need be. This situation was akin to someone parking his car in the middle of a very busy intersection, blocking traffic both directions, and then insisting (correctly or incorrectly) that he’s paid for a parking spot there. He’s disrupting work flows and schedules for hundreds, possibly thousands of people.

        The airlines are on a tremendously sensitive choke point for society and the laws and such reflect that.

        But certainly it wouldn’t be too far out of bounds for law enforcement to say to United, “Look, if this guy presents a danger, we’ll go in there with the necessary amount of force to make sure no one gets hurt. But in the meantime, we’re going to ask that you continue to look for a more peaceful resolution to this situation.”

        Should they do that with every drunk the airplanes kick off? Every loud mouth? Every stowaway?

        Remember the OJ chase? That was a number of discrete encounters that law enforcement definitively lost, from allowing OJ to surrender himself, to clearing the freeway, to allowing him to sit in his car and in his home for a couple of hours until he was ready to surrender peacefully.

        OJ killing himself was a reasonable possibility… and OJ was also an exceptional situation, akin to the President of the United States showing up.

        Insisting that every situation bring to bear the entire department and that nothing else get done every time someone refuses to cooperate with a beat cop is probably a non-starter.

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        • Insisting that every situation bring to bear the entire department and that nothing else get done every time someone refuses to cooperate with a beat cop is probably a non-starter.

          Right…. I notice that you quoted every part of what I wrote except this one:

          Should every confrontation be like the OJ case? No. But certainly it wouldn’t be too far out of bounds for law enforcement to say to United, “Look, if this guy presents a danger, we’ll go in there with the necessary amount of force to make sure no one gets hurt. But in the meantime, we’re going to ask that you continue to look for a more peaceful resolution to this situation.” Yeah, that’s probably not what Dirty Harry would have done, but maybe it’s time we started looking for better policing role models.

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          • I dropped that sentence because it seems to conflict with the rest of your point and with the situation as a whole.

            Should every confrontation be like the OJ case? No. But certainly it wouldn’t be too far out of bounds for law enforcement to say to United, “Look, if this guy presents a danger, we’ll go in there with the necessary amount of force to make sure no one gets hurt. But in the meantime, we’re going to ask that you continue to look for a more peaceful resolution to this situation.”

            I assumed that happened off camera, by the police if no one else.

            “Flatly unwilling to obey the crew” is probably equiv to “presents a danger”, at least as far as the airline is concerned. Are they really supposed to take off and figure out in the air what other commands he’s willing or unwilling to follow? Maybe bump three more people so they can bring the police with them?

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            • “Flatly unwilling to obey the crew” is probably equiv to “presents a danger”, at least as far as the airline is concerned.

              It’s the internet, so I suppose that you’re welcome to use words however you want to use them. But those two things simply don’t mean the same thing.

              This attitude, however, is why cops can shoot or beat anyone they want, in any number of circumstances, and not face penalties so long as they claim that they were scared and the person presented a danger. It is also the case that lots of people are going to support that status quo because of some combination of being naturally inclined to be deferential to certain forms of authority and because lots of people assume that they will never be on the wrong end of that aggression. Good luck with that.

              If I am mistaken about you and you do see a problem with the impunity to use all manner of force in too many situations as a problem, then let’s talk about how to change that culture. If I’m not, then I’m happy to agree to disagree and move on from this conversation.

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              • But those two things simply don’t mean the same thing.

                Not for anyone with common sense and/or judgement, but we’re talking about airport security. Airports are highly regimented, highly secured and we are deep into “professional paranoid” territory.

                Airport security searches people’s shoes for explosives. Airport security treats all bomb threats as cold bloodedly serious even if they’re clearly not. Airport security shuts down the wing of an airport if someone walks through the wrong door while distractedly talking on her cell phone. Airport Security constantly broadcasts warnings about explosives in odd-language over the PA system.

                They’re working on the idea that one out of control passenger can destroy the airplane by opening a door while in mid-flight or by overpowering the pilot. Airplanes land every year because of one out of control (normally drunk) passenger so Airport Security can drag them off.

                Afaict, Airport Security, as a matter of policy, treats “out of control” as “presents a danger”.

                IMHO this mess is United’s fault for painting their customer into that corner… but United also painted security into that corner on this one.

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                  • “He insists on sitting in the seat we assigned him and going to the place he paid us to take him to, so as you can see he’s a pretty desperate character.”

                    My expectation is the United skipped that part and went directly to “we’ve ordered him to get off the airplane, he refuses. The airplane is over-full and he’s drawn the short stick.”

                    And yes, the plane is over-full because United screwed up (multiple ways).
                    And it’s *remaining* over-full because United is refusing to offer enough money.
                    And United is trying to take his seat, which he paid for, and give it to one of their employees so they can dead head.

                    Those are all (from Security’s stand point) details compared to…
                    “Does United have the legal right to do what they’re doing?” – Yes.
                    “Does the Doc have the legal right to do what he’s doing?” – No.

                    Security’s job is (always) to be paranoid and (sometimes to) remove from the airplane anyone who gets out of line.

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                    • I am curious to know what the totality of the experience was for Dao. Did the officer just come up and grab him? Was there any attempt at a dialog? Something like:

                      “You have been ordered to deboard. I am here to make that happen. Please come with me right now. I mean, right now. If you don’t get moving, I’m going to drag you out of here. Last chance.”

                      would make me a lot less sympathetic to the passenger.

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                      • Pilots union said they had the wrong security there. That Chicago PD has been trained and was supposed to be there.

                        Now this is interesting.

                        I’d been assuming the police who’d been trained for this were there and the film just started after the “ask him to leave under threat of force” bit. I’d also been assuming only one set of security of this nature was even allowed on site. Airport Security would rightly be unhappy at the idea of other security goons around, either doing their work for them or as a set of guns not under their control.

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                    • Since the flight was not actually overbooked, but instead only fully booked, with the exact number of passengers as seats available, United Airlines had no legal right to force any passengers to give up their seats to prioritize others. What United did was give preference to their employees over people who had reserved confirmed seats, in violation of 14 CFR 250.2a. Since Dr. Dao was already seated, it was clear that his seat had already been “reserved” and “confirmed” to accommodate him specifically.

                      United Airlines Did Not Have the Legal Right to Refuse Service to the Doctor Dragged Off Its Plane
                      According to that article, because the flight wasn’t actually overbooked, Dao was in the right. It has been widely reported that it was overbooked, but apparently trying to maneuver your crew doesn’t make the definition cut.

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                      • There is also the question of whether “boarding” applies once you are seated.

                        There are laws governing overbooking, bumping passengers, etc (apparently they trace to a Nader effort decades ago) — that’s where the minimum dollar amounts for being bumped off a flight come from — and “boarding” isn’t strictly defined.

                        Reading the law as a whole, you’d have a very strong case that once seated boarding has ended, and your removal from the plane falls under other sections of the law (which specify on what grounds they can remove you, and “overbooked” is not one).

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                        • Reading the law as a whole, you’d have a very strong case that once seated boarding has ended, and your removal from the plane falls under other sections of the law (which specify on what grounds they can remove you, and “overbooked” is not one).

                          I have no idea what the law is, but that’s the obvious *social* threshold, also.

                          We tend to think there’s a difference between denying service to people *before* they have started using the service, and *removing* the service once it’s already started to be provided.

                          And that line is pretty much ‘getting on the plane and sitting down'(1). Stopping people from getting on the plane is one thing, but removing them once they are on the plane and have sat down is any *entirely different* thing…in our minds, at least, even if it turns out that’s not what the law says.

                          In fact, that’s sorta how we think about that sort of thing in general. There’s a reason that stores, for example, are loathe to remove customers at closing. The store closes, and they lock the doors so *more* people can’t come in, but they still let the existing people finish up. Legally, obviously, they can do that. Practically, they cannot.

                          Again, I don’t know what the law says (Although I’ve read enough to indicate the United actually should be worried, because if all this was not clearly allowed under the law they’re screwed when the lawsuit is filed.), but they clearly violated a *social norm* in saying ‘We will provide you the service of air travel, go in and sit and down and make yourself comfortable’ and then attempting to withdraw from that agreement *later*.

                          Whereas if they had said ‘We are sorry we said we could provide that service today, but it turns out we cannot’ when he had shown up and tried to get on the plane, well, that’s reasonable.

                          Although, strictly speaking, canceling promised service is pretty unacceptable in other situations if someone *has reservations*, and especially if they’ve *already paid*….the airlines have just trained us that their reservations and promises are bullshit. No restaurant or hotel would get away with that sort of crap.

                          But they haven’t managed to train us to the point of ‘You might not get to go *even after you are on the plane*.’. I’m sure they *thought* that, but, surprisingly, we aren’t quite at that level yet.

                          1) Not quite sure how we’d feel about letting people on the plane but then making them get off before they found a seat and sat down, if we’d be as outraged or not. But that’s not that relevant here.

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                      • because the flight wasn’t actually overbooked, Dao was in the right. It has been widely reported that it was overbooked, but apparently trying to maneuver your crew doesn’t make the definition cut.

                        Thank you, glad to hear it…

                        …and this means United screwed up even more than originally thought.

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  9. This dovetails with one of my initial reactions which had to do with who “deplaned” him. Now I’m curious which LEO agency has/had jurisdiction. Assuming these aren’t like local beat cops called in from the nearest station house — that they have some sort of specific dominion over and training for the airport and aircraft — it seems ridiculous they didn’t have a better plan of action. Sam once broke down an approach removing a defiant and disruptive student from a classroom. The approach seemed designed for both dealing with young people AND working in a classroom setting.

    Why don’t these guys have a strategy for removing someone from an airplane seat that is unlikely to lead to bloodying him up? What if there was a real emergency that involved removing someone?

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    • Why don’t these guys have a strategy for removing someone from an airplane seat that is unlikely to lead to bloodying him up?

      Sounds like their strategy was “call the police”. What else would you recommend in this world that sadly lacks magic wands? Maybe a lever on every seat that opens a trap door underneath?

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    • Why don’t these guys have a strategy for removing someone from an airplane seat that is unlikely to lead to bloodying him up?

      I think you gotta look further upstream. If there’re people who have a Special Dispensation guaranteeing them a flight, then assign them seats first and let the plebes fight it out before they board. The problem is assigning someone a seat, letting them check in and get belted for takeoff, and only THEN send in the Pinkerton’s to assault remove the trouble maker.

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  10. If I were the CEO of United, I’d start by offering the man the humblest possible apologies and free flights for life in the most publicly visible way possible. In the meantime, I’d be conducting the most methodologically sound root cause analysis in history and commence firing anyone whose name is within seven degrees of it. Finally, I’d reduce all ticket prices by 10% across the board in hopes that my company will still be around in five years.

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  11. Someone pointed out to me that KELO vs. New London has demonstrated that the governments and corporations have a Constitutional right to collude to take away the private property of citizens in order to give the spoils to corporations.

    So I guess United will win the case once it goes to court.

    It was also pointed out to me that the people who took pictures of the guy getting beaten up were in violation of the Volstead Act.

    On top of that, it was pointed out that nobody would care if this was a black guy.

    So it seems to have been demonstrated that United did nothing wrong, at least, nothing as bad as what its critics are doing.

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    • There is a difference between doing something wrong and doing something which could lead to a legal sanction of some sort.

      I think United acted poorly, unethically, and immorally. I have my doubts about whether there will be a legal sanction or not via damages or a settlement. Chances are if anything happens, it will be decided in binding and silent mediation or arbitration. Another thing conservatives and libertarians generally love allowing into contracts of adhesion.

      Interestingly a lot of libertarians including some former OTers have a knee jerk reaction to defending United here it seems. Including the always vague proclamation that “market forces” will dictate whether United did right or wrong based on whether they take a profit hit or not because of canceled flights and declining sales.

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    • Oh, here’s another article explaining that United did nothing wrong, at least, nothing as bad as what its critics are doing.

      Dao, who went to medical school in Vietnam in the 1970s before moving to the U.S., was working as a pulmonologist in Elizabethtown when he was arrested in 2003 and eventually convicted of drug-related offenses after an undercover investigation, according to documents filed with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure last June. The documents allege that he was involved in fraudulent prescriptions for controlled substances and was sexually involved with a patient who used to work for his practice and assisted police in building a case against him.

      I just knew there was something shady about him!

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    • I dunno, my reaction would be, “You got an empty seat in first class, or a man you can move out of First Class to sit next to these dudes? That would work for me.”

      Of course, it would suck to be that man in first class if there wasn’t an empty seat.

      (In all seriousness, my first reaction would be to ask for an upgrade if I were being asked to move. My second reaction, if that were not forthcoming, might be to demand a comparable seat on a different airline, for free. Not possible if flying out of Podunk, USA, but in a big airport it would likely be).

      I try to be a nice person – I’d move seats, for example, if an airline derp resulted in a family with small kids being split up and my moving would allow them to sit together. But I draw the line at someone essentially saying their cultural practices trump our laws.

      (Though I will quietly call shenanigans on the story: long orange robed monks suggests Buddhism, not Islam, as they are reporting. Not sure what Buddhist practice says about men sitting next to women….)

      Then again, I’m not sure **I’d** want to sit next to someone who was quietly resenting me for my gender.

      Ugh. People. As I’ve said before: transition to hermit 85% complete. It may be 100% complete after a few more news stories like these.

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      • A good old-fashioned “reverse auction” would fix most any problem.

        When I was a kid, my mom always leapt at the opportunity to get bumped on a flight. Those vouchers paid for our next trip (as a family) and we flew First Class more than once.

        The fact that airlines have moved to “like it or lump it” is bad. I hope they get their comeuppance.

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    • The feds already are involved in it in most practical ways. There are clear regulations for what they’re allowed to do and how they must compensate passengers when they do it. They just don’t have a way of inducing people who won’t get off a plane to leave without resorting to force.

      It seems like one would be pretty easy to come up with. We know who you are. If there’s one thing you do when you fly, it’s create an identity paper trail. So with some extra authority via federal law, they could just say, “Look, you get off the plane now or you take your flight and there will be an officer waiting to arrest you when we land. Your call.” Or even easier, “You’ll be hit with a $5000 fine if you don’t leave. We know who you are. You’ll receive a court summons in the mail.”

      In any case, I’m guessing that airlines all over the US are improving their compensation policies this very moment to make sure this never happens again.

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        • In normal English, the phrase “denied boarding” implies that the denial takes place prior to actually walking from the airport to the plane. In legalese, it might mean “all your base belong to us”.

          On the other hand, it seems pretty clear that if United meant for it to be interpreted broadly, there’d most likely be a “definitions” section clarifying that fact (eg: “for the purposes of this section the term “denied boarding” includes physically removing you from the plane after you’ve been cleared for boarding”) or some additional provisions covering that possibility (eg: “In the event that a passenger has been granted boarding privileges on an oversold flight and is comfortably relaxing in his assigned seat, UA reserves the right to boot that person from the plane by applying whatever level of physical violence is required to achieve that end.”)

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  12. I”m sure this Doctor has never made any patients wait past their scheduled times for appointments. This is yet another case of the elites thinking the rules don’t apply to them.

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