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Travel Goes Awry

This week we have seen much press and social media coverage of an incident aboard a United Airlines plane in Chicago. Like so many others around the world, I have watched in horrified fascination as the story unfolded—viewing the video, listening to news reports, and following the Twitter commentary. Late-night talk show hosts roasted the airline. We have many witty Americans who suggested numerous new slogans for United Airlines (see #UnitedAirlinesNewMottos).

Apparently, the man on the plane committed the sin of quietly boarding the plane with his valid ticket and then taking his assigned seat. Suddenly, the airline decided they wanted that spot for a non-revenue flyer, leaving no room for the man who thought he was on his way home. The crew ordered him off. When he refused to comply because he needed to get home, they brought in law enforcement to compel the unarmed, elderly man to leave. These reinforcements quickly bloodied the man, knocked out his teeth, and rendered him unconscious. Then the thugs security officers proceeded to drag him down the aisle and out of the plane. He ended up in the hospital for three days. The airline called this incident a re-accommodation, saying they had asked nicely for so-called volunteers first.

As the week progressed, I was surprised to learn that many airlines follow the same procedure of boarding ticket holders only to turn around and force them off the plane before departure. Numerous people have come forward in recent days to tell stories of how they, too, have been checked in, security screened, and settled in their seats only to be randomly selected to leave the plane. One man said he had been threatened with handcuffs. I saw videos of other passengers crying and pleading to stay on the aircraft so they could get to weddings, funerals, graduations, etc. on time. Airline staff always turned a deaf ear. It reminds me of the Shirley Jackson short story, The Lottery, where townspeople stone to death a randomly-selected neighbor.

A couple of questions have come to my mind after the United incident:

  1. Why did United think this type of extreme action was necessary in this case? The plane was meant to fly to Louisville, a 4-hour drive from Chicago. When United could not lure anyone to give up a seat on the flight, why not secure other means of travel for the crew instead of inconveniencing their paying passengers? Several options occurred to me, including a flight on another airline, a limousine or rental car, or a private plane. After the delays on the flight in question, the crew would have arrived in Louisville at about the same time.
  2. Why is airport security getting involved in situations where the airlines have intentionally provoked passengers entrusted to their care? These are not situations where an individual has come aboard and then become violent or posed a threat to anyone. Perhaps the airlines would find a better way to meet their own needs if they had to hire their own bouncers for disagreements they instigate.

And a final question: What does all this have to do with genealogy?

Well, genealogists must travel sometimes for research purposes or to attend conferences. Now, in addition to worrying about TSA intrusions on the ground, flight delays for weather or mechanical reasons, and normal fear of flying, we must sit apprehensively in our assigned seats while dreading what the crew might do to us before the plane actually takes off. We must wonder, will I be the one told either to leave or to risk getting beaten up and sent to jail? Will I have to watch it happen to someone else?

Because air travel was already so unpleasant, I have not flown in three years. This year, however, I decided to make a trip to Germany to see some family villages and to go on tour with my choir. The timing of the United incident, just weeks before my own trip, has really raised my stress level over my travel plans. I can only hope that flying overseas on a customer-friendly foreign carrier will help me avoid an abusive situation. I am not frightened enough to cancel my trip, but I know it will take a great incentive for me to ever schedule another one, especially on a domestic flight. I would rather drive or take the train.


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