From a Pilot’s Daughter: On the United Fiasco

Warning: unpopular opinion coming your way.

I am a pilot’s daughter. My dad flew in the Air National Guard for 20 years and has been a commercial airline pilot for 31. He flies for Delta, so thankfully he’s only dealing right now with passengers who are angry about a mess of missed or canceled flights and not the masses who can’t believe a man got dragged off an airplane. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just go ahead and Google “United” and you’ll be all caught up.) I first saw the whole United fiasco Monday during my lunch break. It was an article that came from Relevant, referencing the infamous “leggings girls” who got kicked off a flight not so long ago, and warned me in the Facebook post that the video I was about to watch was “disturbing.”

My newsfeed has had video of a teenager who lost 19 family members in the Syrian chemical attack in the last week; perhaps I’m callous, but a man being dragged off a plane is not what disturbs me.

Now, I respect that this whole thing is upsetting to people. But I also know that it’s upsetting to people for different reasons, and I believe some of those reasons are misguided or ignorant. And I think you deserve to know what I know so you can look at this whole thing in a more holistic way.

Disclaimer: I do not think that I have the whole picture. I know there are details out there that I don’t have access to. But from what I’ve read and seen and based on what I know of the world of commercial airlines, I think I have insights that would be helpful for others. You may have a reason for being upset about this that my insights don’t touch. That’s fine. You have a right to feel however you feel. As do I.

First: airlines overbook all the time. You’ve probably been on overbooked flights. And maybe you’re sitting there going, “Well, they shouldn’t be allowed!” (You can join Chris Christie on that particular bandwagon, if that’s something you’re into.) But realize that overbooking is just how you run a profitable airline. Airlines want to send full planes places because that’s how they make money. You need customers to pay for the fuel and employees it takes to operate a flight. So when people get held up in other airports or miss a connecting flight (which happens all the time), airlines don’t just want to send a big empty plane somewhere. Thus, overbooking. And if you think that this is something they do without telling you, read the fine print. It’s right there when you buy a plane ticket, it’s just part of that page of text you click “agree” on without reading any of it.

Second: airlines are allowed to remove people from flights. In the case of the leggings girls, airline policy had been violated. What was missing in a lot of the stories was the fact that the girls were flying as non-revenue passengers. Even the articles that mentioned this failed to explain what that means, but I know firsthand. Having grown up a pilot’s daughter, most of our family vacations started with standby lists. It also started with my mom wrestling me into a pair of tights while I screamed my head off. It was explained to my brother and me that we were representing the airline when we flew standby, and so we had to dress the way they wanted us to. It wasn’t great fun to wear your church clothes to the airport (neither was sometimes spending the whole day there without getting on a plane at all), but it was part of the deal. We dressed up because that was part of our “cost” for flying the way we did (close to free). And if we hadn’t dressed up, the airline would have had every right to kick us off the flight. Delta has pretty relaxed standby dress requirements, but they don’t have to. And if United wants their nonrevs not to wear leggings, that’s their choice.

Third: people are angry that the doctor and other passengers were asked to give up their seats for United employees. These employees were not standby riders heading out on vacation. They were crew for other flights that were needed at another airport. Have you ever been at the airport and had a flight that was missing its crew? Probably not. You know why? Because the airline either had a crew stationed there or they flew one in from somewhere else. The airline term for this is deadheading. My dad does it all the time. He’s not always operating the plane on every flight during his trips. Sometimes he’s just riding to some other airport where they need a pilot for whatever reason (e.g. she got sick or he got stuck in another airport). Had United not done what they did, it wouldn’t have been just four people who didn’t get on a plane, it would have been a whole plane-load of people. An entire canceled flight is a much worse issue for an airline than four ticked off passengers. They can fit four people on some other flights. They can’t fit a whole planeload of people on other already packed flights. And remember, they own these planes. They can certainly use them to move their own employees around.

Fourth: people seem to be missing the part where a law enforcement officer was the one who dragged the infamous doctor off the United flight. It was not a buff United flight attendant or the first officer. It was someone who did not work for United. Have you ever asked someone to take care of a problem for you and then disliked the way that they did it? I imagine United wanted someone who had authority and know-how to help them remove the man who wouldn’t get off their plane. I doubt they called and asked someone to come knock a guy out and literally drag him off their plane.

Finally: it’s come out that the doctor has run afoul of the law before. Everyone keeps asking what this has to do with the United incident, and, while it doesn’t directly apply, it does show that this man evidently has little respect for the law. This is a man who has been charged with 98 felonies, convicted of 6, and can only practice medicine one day a week. A doctor who assessed Dr. Dao said that “he would unilaterally choose to do his own thing.” Sounds like someone who might become obstinate and disruptive when asked to disembark an airplane. So perhaps he wasn’t just the poor, innocent, kindly old doctor all the initial social media posts were making him out to be. For goodness’ sake, he got back on the plane after being dragged off.

So was the situation handled poorly? Yes. But is this United’s fault? I don’t think it was. I think it was an unfortunate (albeit common) situation, and they happened to pick the literal worst person to ask to leave the flight. Air travel is a notoriously unreliable, sometimes uncomfortable, and often frustrating method of travel. If you’re not ready to miss a flight or lose your bag or not get any pretzels, pick another way to travel. It’s all part of the deal.

And please stop thinking that pilots and flight attendants are out to get you. My dad feels terrible when his flights are delayed or he knows a passenger had a bad experience. Sure, not everyone is like him, but that doesn’t justify demonizing a whole occupation or industry because of a few jerks. Let’s not forget that we’re all just people trying to live our lives and do our jobs well. It’s easy to throw blame around and #boycottUnited, but it’s just going to end up hurting a lot of people who didn’t do anything wrong. Even if the fault lies with one particular United crew or employee, that doesn’t justify hurting all the employees of a company. As a Delta pilot’s daughter, let me ask you, for the sake of United pilots and their daughters and families, please don’t overreact just because social media gives us the ability to get personally outraged at something that happened somewhere to someone. Or at least make sure you understand as much as you can before you start casting stones.


One thought on “From a Pilot’s Daughter: On the United Fiasco

  1. I had never heard about the nonrev thing before. I’m sorry you had to wear tights as a child. I feel your pain. 🙂
    You’ve made good points for me to ponder. I shall do so.


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