Lies Lead to Violence. Where Can United Go from Here? | Sojourners

Lies Lead to Violence. Where Can United Go from Here?

Check-in area for Premier Access premium passengers at the United Airlines terminal at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport. EQRoy /

On April 9, 69-year-old Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from Chicago-based United Flight 3411, bound for Louisville, Ky. By late Monday night cell-phone footage from the traumatic incident had been viewed around the world, and the hashtags #BoycottUnitedAirlines and #BoycottUnited swept the internet.

Across the world, the story that filtered through news outlets, Twitter feeds, and Facebook rants began like this: After boarding, Flight 3411 crew members said the flight was overbooked, so they asked passengers to voluntarily give up their seat in exchange for a ticket worth $400, then $800. No one volunteered, so a computer chose four random people to boot from the plane. Then, usually toward the end of the story it was added — the airline needed the four seats to transport its flight crew for a flight in Louisville.

On Tuesday morning, United spokesman Jonathan Guerin said the flight was actually not overbooked as had been reported. In fact, the four-person flight crew’s urgent Louisville flight wasn’t scheduled to take off until the next morning.

So, what happened here?

Someone lied. It’s more acceptable to say, “You’ve been bumped because the flight is overbooked,” than to say, “You’ve been bumped because we want your seat to fly our staff."

That lie led to violence. Violence led to trauma for passengers, for millions of viewers, and for United, which sustained a $1.4 billion dive in stock value by Tuesday morning and now seems rested at a $255 million loss.

What if someone from the 3411 crew didn’t lie?

What if they never claimed the flight was overbooked?

What if they got on the microphone and announced to passengers sitting in the gate that the airline needed to send four members of a flight crew to Louisville to meet its plane and they were looking for four passengers to give up their seat for $400, then $800, then $1,000, then $1,350 worth of airline tickets? And what if no one responded? What if they then offered cash: $400 cash, $800 cash, $1,350 cash? Analysts say the chances are high that someone would have responded.

But, what if no one responded?

What if the Flight 3411 crew engaged what I’ll call the Customer Honoring Option? The Flight 3411 crew arranges a later flight for the four-person Louisville crew to reach its destination. According to an investigation by “United flies four non-stops each Sunday from its Chicago hub to Louisville … there was still one flight scheduled a few hours later.” If that wasn’t possible, then they book the crew on a United partner or on another airline, or in a van. (It’s only a 5-hour van ride from Chicago to Louisville.) In this option, every passenger and every flight attendant reaches their destination and goes about their lives.

In this scenario, truth and respect are the foundations of business.

But this is not what they did. Instead, they levied instruments of coercion and domination (computer-based involuntary bouncing of customers and airport police) rather than persuasion and incentive (honest human conversation with passengers, requesting rather than demanding, increased incentives to the max allowed).

What did they do? They lied. They manipulated. They did violence to a customer and traumatized the world. Now they are paying the price.

In the process of writing The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, I discovered a simple truth:

When we govern (ourselves, our homes, our businesses, our nation, between nations) in a way that seeks to serve the self alone, then we will inevitably be led to crush the image of God in the other. When we govern in a way that seeks the wellbeing of the other as well as the self (in our relationships, our families, our churches, our businesses, and between nations) then the image of God flourishes. It is that simple.

I have logged more than 300,000 miles on United Airlines. It is my airline. I am a Premier Gold Mileage Plus Member. I was booked on a United flight to Chicago next week. I switched my ticket from United to another airline and joined the #BoycottUnitedAirlines initiative.

I believe in the possibility of redemption. While United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, has apologized, he has not outlined how he will make things right. Here are nine points on United’s #RoadtoRedemption:

  1. Don't overbook flights.
  2. Don't lie and say you've overbooked your flights when you haven't.
  3. Don't bounce paying customers to make room for staff. Make other arrangements. There is always a way.
  4. If customers MUST be involuntarily bounced, offer the maximum allowed — $1,350 cash.
  5. A customer should NEVER be bounced from a flight once they have taken their seat.
  6. Reparation should be made to David Dao, involuntarily removed from the flight.
  7. Reparation for emotional damage should be made to all passengers on the flight.
  8. Reparation should be made to all United Mileage Plus Members for the shame you placed on them.
  9. United should issue a public statement detailing its policy changes, lessons learned, and measures taken to make things right.

This is what it would look like for United to redirect its governance from lies and coercion to truth and restoration.

This is what it would look like to govern United in a way that serves, cultivates, and protects the image of God in every customer and every staff member.

Praying for truth to reign and redemption to follow.

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