When documenting is our only recourse

Apr 24, 2017

By now you’ve probably seen the video: An older man is forcibly removed from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight. The moment which quickly went viral shows the man, who by then was seemingly unconscious, literally being dragged down the aisle. While the legal implications of this event will take some time to fully realize, the public relations nightmare is already in full swing. Made worse was a leaked internal email from United Airlines’ CEO which insisted that the passenger was rightly removed. Suddenly it went from awful to incredibly awful. 
More recently, a shouting match that nearly turned physical is putting American Airlines into the spotlight. After a woman’s stroller was, according to some witnesses, aggressively taken from her and put into storage by an airline employee causing it to nearly hit one of her children, the passenger’s uncontrollable sobbing left a male passenger to confront the employee. While this employee in question has been suspended while an investigation is being completed, the damage to the company’s reputation as well as the damage done to the woman and all those aboard the plane has already been done. 
A national dialogue seemed to take place where people shared similar stories of mistreatment by UA along with other airline companies. This idea of flights routinely being overbooked was questioned. The methods as to which companies try to lure passengers in to give up their seats have been scrutinized. The value judgement we place on who to “randomly” remove have even been brought up. 
Though this is a horrific event that has undoubtedly scarred the passenger in question as well as caused a great deal of distress to all those involved, the hope is that the resulting downward PR spiral for United (as well as the inherent legal implications) will help move towards better treatment towards customers. 
This is certainly not the first incidence of blatant mistreatment of customers and it, of course, will not be the last. The difference now is that we are equipped with a means of documenting such events to share with the world. Twenty years ago this would’ve made the local news with eye-witness reports competing against the words of an airline spokesperson. It is actual footage that brings us into the experience which, justifiably, is one of outrage and disgust. 
Videos we take with our smartphones are the new tar-and-feather public shamings. By some measure, they are our only tools especially when it comes to being in an airport and boarding a flight. But as airline terminals and airline companies respond to threats of terrorism and violence, the response may well threaten our ability to document and advocate for ourselves. So for now, the best tool we have is our phone. Until airport security confiscates those as well.

About the Column

Luke Lee

Luke is a mental health counselor from Seattle, Washington in the United States. He moved to Suzhou in 2016 and currently works as the Psychological Counselor for international students at Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Though his current position consists of counseling students, Luke also enjoys working with couples, parents and families. Previously Luke worked in the Kurdish region of Iraq and in private practice in Seattle. In his spare time Luke enjoys cooking, meeting new people, playing board games and traveling to different countries.

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