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
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
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
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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