Family thrown off United Airlines flight for complaining about movie

When I read this, I was incredulous: United Airlines flight 638 en route from Denver (DEN) to Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) on February 2 diverted to Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD) and a family was thrown off ... because the parents complained about the graphic nature of the in-flight movie!

The movie, being shown on drop-down screens so the whole cabin could see was “Alex Cross,” a movie United’s own in-flight magazine described as being for a mature audience. The parents, whose kids were 4 and 8, didn’t want their kids seeing the graphic and often sexually explicit images, even if they weren’t listening to the audio, and asked the flight attendants to do something about it.

Other passengers reportedly agreed with the parents and expressed their support to the flight attendants, who said there was nothing they could do. About an hour later the captain announced that, due to “security concerns,” the flight was being diverted and, to their surprise, the family was taken off the plane at O’Hare.

Rather than recount it here and risk losing something in translation, here is the link to the family’s original letter to Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows. It’s about halfway down in his column.

Interestingly, this matter came to my attention the day after I posted an opinion piece on the authority of flight crews and whether they’re actually usurping more authority than they’re granted by the federal regulations under which airlines operate. If this incident unfolded the way the family says – and even the airline isn't contesting their account – then the answer is clearly “yes”.

As I noted in my original column, there is no third party other than the courts to review such incidents and determine whether flight crews acted appropriately. In short, there is little accountability for the airline or the flight crew.

This type of situation cannot be allowed to be repeated unchecked. Certainly, if a passenger becomes belligerent after being asked either to do or to stop doing something, then the attitude becomes the issue rather than the original action.

But people who make a reasonable request politely, as did this family, or do as they were asked, like the blogger who was thrown off an overseas United flight for taking a picture, then what is the problem? No reasonable person would regard either situation as threatening; however, it all rests on the judgment of the crew. And in cases like these last two, that judgment needs to be carefully scrutinized.

Finally, I see this as yet another example of why the airlines need to be re-regulated. They’re getting away with far too much, from cramming people into ever-smaller seats to nickel-and-diming passengers to charging usurious fees for changing tickets to incidents like those I just recounted.

As Jeffersonian as I am, believing “The government that governs best, governs least”, it pains me to say this but there seems to be little choice other than to contact our members of Congress and ask – no, insist – that they do something to reign in this industry that is increasingly hostile and increasingly apathetic toward its customers. I’ve written my Senators and Representative; I urge you to do the same.

Here’s my letter. Feel free to borrow from it and add your own thoughts.  

Dear Senator or Representative (NAME):

The potential merger of American Airlines and US Airways would mean that only four airlines would handle nearly 70% of domestic traffic.

The airline industry has for too long shown itself to be perfectly willing to inconvenience its passengers by selling more seats than are actually available using a Byzantine pricing structure that is nearly impossible for the average person to sort out, by canceling flights or changing flight schedules by several hours without explanation or without notifying passengers, and by cramming more of us into ever-smaller seats. At the same time, this industry constantly invents new ways to wring every possible dollar from its customers through fees for everything from checked bags to paying extra for certain “select” seats.

These examples, along with many more I could cite, indicate to me that it is time to re-regulate the U.S. airline industry.

While I do not advocate returning to the complete control of fares, routes, etc., exercised by the Civil Aeronautics Board, there are many things that should be more closely regulated for the benefit of the traveling public. For example:

Airlines should be required to offer one price for all seats in each class (coach, business, first) up to perhaps 14 days before the flight, at which time they could raise the fare because of the “last-minute” nature of the purchase. Even then, however, prices should be consistent across each class.

Airlines should be required to check one piece of luggage per passenger without charge. Structuring the cost of the ticket properly should make this a simple matter.

Airlines should be required to provide seats with a pitch not less than 33”, and no less than 18.5” wide. We Americans are getting larger (our own fault, granted), but airlines are making the seats smaller. Squeezing into a seat 17” wide verges on cruel and unusual punishment.

Airlines should be prohibited from using regional jets on flights longer than 1-1/2 hours in duration. Flights longer than that aren’t “regional” anymore.

“Change fees” should be limited at a very low level of perhaps $25. Considering all factors, including the level of computerization and the low wages paid to airline employees, claiming it costs the airline anywhere near the fees they charge to change a ticket is simply unsupportable.

These are simply some initial suggestions.

Other frequent travelers and industry observers will have others. Finally, I’m certain you could quickly compile an extensive list of your own by asking your fellow fliers (or guests at the bar at virtually any decent business hotel) a few simple questions: What irritates you most about flying?, What would you like to see the airlines required to do?, and What would you like to see the airlines prohibited from doing?

Thank you for reading this and giving the matter serious consideration.

United Airlines is NYSE:UAL.

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