The United Airlines Crisis of Human Dignity

Someone working in that situation should have had the strength and presence to say, “Hold up a minute. We don’t do that. We don’t treat people like that. It’s not who we are.”

The United Airlines event yesterday was an attack on human dignity, the most basic of human needs. The people staffing that flight and gate could have averted the horrific scene of dragging someone from the plane by putting human respect and integrity before United’s business interests.

Human dignity is the basis of human rights, the basis of civility and social structure, the center of our identity, the foundation of who we are. China is outraged. We should all be appalled.

It wasn’t just the unfolding of the event itself, but also the way in which United Airlines defended the action in an internal statement to employees. The language in the statement is defensive, suggesting the event was “unfortunate”, while United employees “politely asked”, the passenger “refused.” The whole statement is defensive instead of apologetic. In part, it says:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.

What saddens us the most is the motivation of United Airlines. After the gross incompetence of overbooking the flight, United made a business decision to prioritize their own crew over a paying customer. The rationale for removing several passengers was so a crew could be transported to service a flight out of Louisville to maintain their business operations.

Apparently since the crew on board didn’t have the leadership and emotional intelligence to change their decisions in the face of a growing human crisis, they called the Chicago police to remove the man for them. The official statement later wouldn’t address the incident directly, but instead directed people to the Chicago police for answers.

There were numerous other choices in that circumstance. United could have attempted to assign a different crew for the Louisville flight, offered higher incentives, delayed longer, etc. But most importantly, United employees on that plane and at that gate could have been trained by their leadership and reinforced by their company culture, to make discretionary decisions in the moment which respect the dignity of each and every person.

The definition of a steward is a person who looks after the passengers on a ship, aircraft, or train, and cares for their well-being. Stewardship is the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.


SmallActs-3DShawn Hunter is President and Founder of Mindscaling, a company building beautiful online learning courses based on the work of best-selling authors. My new book Small Acts of Leadership, (Routledge) just released. You can grab a copy now. Have a meeting coming up? Let’s talk.

Twitter: @gshunter
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