Breaking Up With United

In Customer Service, Economy, Philosophy, Travel by J Michel Metz1 Comment

Bullies are evil not just because they do evil things, but because they choose to do evil things because they know no one can stop them.

On April 9, 2017, United Airlines decided that it would be prudent to forcibly eject a paying customer who had already been seated, in order to accommodate their own flight crew.


After the event and video of the episode circumnavigated the globe, the United CEO decided to attack the passenger again in the media, and launched a smear campaign against him.

I said, we are looking for a VOLUNTEER.

Like many people, I was appalled and outraged by not just United’s behavior, but also by their callous  lack of remorse and accountability.1


I have the words “rabid individualist” written in my Twitter profile. My philosophy about the interactions and relationships with people are that there always should be an exchange of value. Only individuals can decide for themselves what constitutes value to them.

To that end, the only power I have as a participant in that exchange of value is to either engage in that exchange, or decline it. The impotence in my rage is mitigated only by the fact that I do not have to support this. I’m not calling for a boycott, or any other such nonsense. United only receives about $30k/year from my travel with them, give or take, so it’s not like they are going to notice my departure in the grand scheme of things.

That does not mean, however, that I am completely powerless to determine the course of my own agency.

My Issue With United

There has been a lot written about the events surrounding United’s treatment of an innocent passenger, but there are a few elements that just send me reeling.

The passenger had a contract with United

I am not a lawyer, so take this as a moral stance, not a legal one. The passenger, Dr. David Dao, had paid for a ticket on United, had already boarded and was seated, minding his own business.

In my mind, there is a moral obligation for both parties to fulfill their end of the contract. Dr. Dao obviously did; he would not have been allowed to board had he not paid for his ticket. United, on the other hand, did not: they apparently decided to reneg on the contract. What’s more, they employed the State’s jackbooted thugs (Illinois’ “finest,” your friendly author remarks, commenting wryly) to do the dirty work for them.

United does not believe they were in the wrong

United CEO, Oscar Munoz, released a statement a day or so after the incident, justifying the removal of the passenger. This wasn’t a knee-jerk, “I must support my team” kind of reaction, though. This was a carefully considered press release.

It was only after considerable condemnation in the court of public opinion did Munoz recanted his position. The resulting fiasco was a strange attempt at back-peddling and “clarification.” However, the behavior of the company after this “mea culpa” discounts everything said in the announcement. Which leads us to…

United launched a smear campaign against the passenger they assaulted

It’s very important to note that Dr. Dao was sitting quietly in his seat as United struggled to find “volunteers” to leave the airplane. It was only after United started to verbally and physically threaten him that he began to protest.

However, the CEO – in his internal memo – labeled Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.” Worse, he minimized the incident as “re-accommodation.”

After he was forced to walk back those comments, news articles began to suddenly appear that cast Dr. Dao in an extremely harsh, negative light. He had apparently been in trouble with the law, over a decade before. Questions “arose” about his legitimacy as a doctor.

Fortunately, these news reports were quickly condemned. For once, the Internet public wasn’t being goaded into using an innocent man as a scapegoat by these hit pieces. But I’m not the only person to wonder how much United shelled out for what is obviously a coordinated attack (far too convenient to be coincidental). The Courier-Journal, The Chicago Sun-Times, TMZ, People, the New York Daily News and the Daily Wrap all “suddenly” had stories on the passenger that had one purpose: to rationalize United’s atrocious behavior because the passenger wasn’t a “good person.” 2

Moral Implications

As a consumer, we are limited in the amount of power that we have against much more powerful organizations. My power – like any consumer – lies in the fact that I can choose with whom I should do business with. That’s the beauty of competition (if, like many countries, this were a State-sponsored airline, I would not even have this choice).

I cannot stress this enough: what United did was wrong. It was immoral, it was unethical, and even if it wound up not being illegal, it certainly should give anyone pause for a moment.

There have been quite a few people who have argued that Dr. Dao should have simply given up his seat; he had no right to the seat, after all. Not only does this go to a complete misunderstanding of “rights” in general, but it begs the question of the burden of responsibility on United to uphold their end of the contract. No, Dr. Dao did not have a “right” to the seat, but neither did United have a “right” to assault him.

Then there is the metacommunicative issues. Not only is the event itself an exercise in unethical behavior, but United’s reaction to the event compounds the egregious nature of their moral bankruptcy. By refusing to own up to the responsibility, and investing in propaganda that would make the Soviets proud, United illustrates the kind of culture it embodies.

What kind of culture is that? At it’s core, it’s a culture of entitlement and bullying just because they can.

Bullies are evil not just because they do evil things, but because they make a choice to do evil things because they know no one can stop them.

United knew – as did many people – that the outrage would be temporary. Yes, the stock dropped horrifically afterwards, but it, too, was only temporary. It did not take long for the “outrage” to disappear from the stock price. Life moved on, of course, and there were more outrages, more horrors, and more of life to contend with.

April 10, and then the long incline

Even if the stock price rebounds, even if no one else is willing to put their money where their outrage is, I cannot remain with a company that treats its moral obligations this way. United used the force of the State to reneg on its contractual obligations with a customer. What kind of person would I be if I were to howl in outrage on the one hand but give money to them with the other?

Reclaiming My Agency

Compared to many, I do not have a lot invested in United as a loyal customer. I’ve been Premiere 1K for the past 5 out of 6 years, flying more than 600,000 actual miles in that time. I was looking forward to hitting the million mile mark – sort of an “achievement” more than any practical benefits.

In April, I started immediately looking for alternative airlines. Unfortunately where you live and the airport that services your needs can make a profound difference on the amount of choice you have, and mine were pretty limited. Nevertheless, I put the wheels in motion and started to explore alternatives.

My logic was this: If I try and fail, at least I will have tried. I would continue to fly United until something better came along if I had no other choice, but I was going to give a genuine try and find something more conducive to my own juris naturalis sensibilities.

No airline is perfect, but after having spent half a year, 75,000 miles and been on more than 50 flight segments, I think that I have a workable solution. In my next blog, I’ll go over the pros and cons of my move to Delta.





  1. United only walked back their justification for attacking a passenger after it was apparent that they were getting boycott threats in China, one of the company’s largest growing markets, as the passenger was Chinese. The mea culpa was hollow, insincere, and unconvincing.
  2. I’m not going to dignify this campaign by linking to any of those articles directly


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