United issues statement after dragging passenger off overbooked flight

A seemingly unconscious passenger is dragged off UA flight 3411.

It’s a good thing United Airlines recently changed its slogan from “fly the friendly skies” to “get knocked unconscious and dragged off the plane,” or they might be vulnerable to ribbing. Last night, passengers on flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville were asked to volunteer f0r a later flight so that four members of another United flight crew could take their seats. Two passengers volunteered and received $800 vouchers. The airline randomly selected another passenger for removal: a man who said he was as a physician scheduled to see patients in Louisville the next day and refused. Eventually, security officers pulled the man screaming from his seat, apparently knocking him unconscious before dragging his limp body down the aisle. Seriously. Here’s a statement from United:

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.

Classic use of the passive voice here: The flight “was overbooked,” so law enforcement “was asked” to manhandle one of United’s customers. By whom we cannot know—probably the same disembodied forces that created the “overbook situation.” But perhaps the most thrilling part of this statement is its bold new use of the words “volunteer” and “voluntarily.” Close reading and fairly disturbing video after the jump.

So, viewer discretion is advised on this one, and it’s advised by me. There’s a grown man screaming, which is disturbing. There’s also one of those people with the kind of voice certain strangers seem to possess—particularly strangers on planes—that makes you want to take up the worship of whatever god might strike them dumb. Anyway, here you go:

I’m the guy who, upon seeing police knock out a nonviolent middle-aged man at the behest of United Airlines, tells them they are doing a good job. I’m also the dude in the orange shirt who sits quietly while these events unfold in the row behind him. Both these people are me. But most of all, I am the United spokesperson who has to make all of this sound normal and, if possible, good. That’s a job of work, and yesterday’s four-sentence statement strains to accomplish it. Let’s go sentence-by-sentence:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. The active-voice version of this sentence would read “United overbooked flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville.” That’s who controls how many people get booked on United flights. Also, many reports suggest this was not a typical overbooking scenario. According to the person who posted the video above, the airline was bumping passengers in order to accommodate a United flight crew that needed to be in Louisville the next morning. Fortunately, the construction “was overbooked” removes United from this situation entirely. Thanks to careful syntax, the word “United” does not appear anywhere in this statement, as though this whole thing were just something that happened on one of their planes, somehow.

After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. This sentence is awesome. The process that begins with asking for volunteers ends with someone’s unconscious body being dragged off the plane. The word “voluntarily” takes on a complicated meaning in the context of compulsion by force. When this man refused to leave voluntarily, “law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.” Who asked them? We cannot know. How did “come to the gate” turn into “drag someone screaming from the plane?” Also not clear from this sentence, whose job is not to convey information but to desperately reframe things the reader already knows.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Alternate versions of this sentence include “We apologize for overbooking this flight,” “We apologize for hiring three guys to manhandle our customer in front of his wife,” and “We promise not to do this to your family.”

Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities. This sentence was written by a person whose brain shut off in order to protect itself. It probably started out as some promise that further details were forthcoming, or that further questions should be directed to authorities. Note that in this situation, the realm of authority does not include the company that owns this plane, sold this man his ticket, and hired these guys to pull him off. If you want to know what happened to the person last seen being dragged unconscious down the aisle of a United plane by United security, don’t ask United. Ask the authorities.

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  1. Yeah, that’s a pretty dramatic video. I’m on the wrong side of the morality here, but I’m pretty sure that dude is playing dead for the cameras. But maybe he was black jacked at the base of the skull from a perspective we can’t see. Like so much about this dragged situation, it is unknowable.

    I’m waiting for the article asking how culpable the other members of the flight are for not volunteering. I’m also waiting for details on how United randomly selected the passengers and what others knew before the cops came on. If someone says “I’m going to shoot this penguin unless you give up your seat” and you sit there, you’re in the clear. But if individuals have unequal claims to stay on the plane and you sit there while the doctor with appointments is selected for the Hunger Games, maybe you’re not.

    I’m waiting for the first person to ask why the only moral actor here is a corporation when the law enforcement personnel decided to drag the dude off? Maybe the head flight attendant or captain should be more conscientious of potential downsides when inviting law enforcement aboard, but it probably seems reasonable to invite them when someone is violating FAA regulations and possibly fucking up the whole airport (read: thousands of ripples affecting hundreds of thousands of others). I don’t think United personnel absorb 100% culpability if a cop on their plane shoots or drags people.

    I’m waiting for the United policy change which requires passengers to agree to get off the plane when asked. Maybe that’s already in the policy. Maybe it’s a law. But something with more visibility and thus PR coverage.

    I’m not waiting for the United analyst to dial back the overbook quotient they’re using to calculate acceptable overbook margins. That’s probably happening right now. They can probably play it a little safer, even though margins are razor thin in the airline industry. I’m also not waiting for the first corporate PR office to use direct attributions in their sentences.

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