Category Archives: United Airlines

The United Airlines scandal reveals the hand of corporate authoritarianism


The confluence of corporate demands and police violence has made extremely visible the absolute lack of rights for citizens in planes, in shopping malls, and in allegedly public spaces. Corporations are riding roughshod over consumers because of their relentless drive for cost-cutting to boost profits, driven by equity capital and aggressive hedge funds.

By now, most people have seen the videos of the violent assault on a 69-year-old physician, Dr. David Gao, as three airport police dragged him from his seat on a United Airlines flight due to depart Chicago O’Hare. He was left with a broken nose and two missing teeth, and will need reconstructive facial surgery.

The police were acting on behalf of airline staff who had failed to convince Gao to give up his fully-paid seat for a United crew member. A police spokesman made a vain attempt to blame the victim for bringing his face in violent contact with an armrest: Gao, said the spokesman, “became ‘irate’ after he was asked to disembark and that he ‘fell’ when aviation officers ‘attempted to carry the individual off the flight… His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face’.”

United’s chief executive, Oscar Muñoz, initially joined the blame game, calling Gao “disruptive and belligerent.” As the videos of the assault went viral, and the company’s share prices plunged, he changed his tune, saying “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” and committed to make sure it never happened again. But all this amounted to was to institute a rule that aircrew had to be allocated seats at least an hour before takeoff; flying aircraft at capacity with little room for maneuver will not change, because it’s central to the company’s strategy to maximize profits.

The flight was not overbooked, as most media have wrongly reported. It had been boarded and was completely full with passengers when, according to an eyewitness, Tyler Bridges, “an airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.”

After a young couple had left the plane, Gao was approached, but refused to move. “He says, ‘Nope. I’m not getting off the flight. I’m a doctor and have to see patients tomorrow morning,’” said Bridges. After staff attempted to argue with him, the airline called the Chicago Department of Aviation, which handles security at O’Hare International. Three officers then boarded. The videos show one of them reaching across two empty seats, yanking Gao up and pulling him into the aisle.

“The man’s face smacked an arm rest as the officer pulled him, according to witnesses and police. ‘It looked like it knocked him out,’ Bridges said. ‘His nose was bloody.’ In any case, in the video, the man goes limp after hitting the floor. Blood trickling from his mouth, his glasses nearly knocked off his face, he clutches his cellphone an officer drags him by both arms down the aisle.”

Other passengers attempted to argue with the police. Another eyewitness, a Kentucky high school teacher, wrote to the Chicago Tribune that one of the officers laughed during the incident.  “Some passengers audibly protested to the officers, some stood and removed themselves from the plane rather than continue to witness the abuse, and one father, while trying to console his 8-year-old daughter, confronted the officer saying, among other things, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’ “

Yves Smith comments that United “is getting a virtual free pass [from the press] as far as its rights to remove a paying passenger with a confirmed seat who has been seated. This seems to reflect the deep internalization in America of deference to authority in the post 9/11 world … The excuse for United’s urgency was that if these crew members didn’t get to their flight, it would create cascading delays. … The FAA tracks flight status of planes by their tail numbers in real time. If the four crew members were in a fix due to a flight delay, United should have known well before they landed and alerted the gate personnel of whatever flight it wanted to put them on as soon as the gate opened. … This in turn reveals the lack of any slack whatsoever in United’s system. Clearly the urgency was due to the four crew members somehow being late; Plan A had failed and the last-minute boarding effort was Plan B or maybe even Plan C. As one experienced passenger said, ‘They can’t come up with four crew members in one of their biggest hubs?’ ”

Wired magazine reports: “The scandal is the predictable byproduct of a relentless obsession with filling planes to absolute maximum capacity coupled with open and invidious discrimination in the treatment of customers. It is a strategy that (along with those nasty baggage and change fees) yielded almost $10 billion in profit over the last two years. …

“United’s 2010 merger with Continental marks the turning point. Before then, United had been, variously, a regulated carrier; the world’s largest firm owned by its employees; and, from 2002 to 2006, in bankruptcy. All the while, it operated in a relatively normal, if not particularly profitable, way. The merger changed that. … Among the unstated goals of the merger was the systematic reduction of capacity, to ensure the major airlines’ flights would always be full, or, better yet, overfilled. … United and Continental had been competitors along many routes, especially out of New York. The merger let them decrease supply so that there would be fewer seats to sell, making possible higher prices and fewer money-losing empty spaces.”

Although over a billion dollars were wiped off its share value when the news broke, United regained its trading position the next day. The Washington Post explained: “The reason is the same for why any of our country’s other oligopolistic powerhouses can treat their fellow Americans with such crass indifference: Shareholders don’t really care about consumer opinion or even a company’s larger public image. They care about profits. If there is no competitor to whom consumers can turn, who really cares what they think? The 2013 merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways — the biggest and last in a series of dramatic consolidations that federal regulators did little to stop — left the United States with only four major airlines.”

It’s this kind of aggressive industrial consolidation, driven by predatory finance and accompanied by outsourcing of jobs and attacks on pensions, that created the authoritarian social climate behind Trump’s administration – more obvious now that he has ditched the pseudo-populism that won him presidential votes.

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Filed under aggressive policing, donald trump, Homeland Security, Neoliberalism, Uncategorized, United Airlines