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Marolt: Locking ourselves in a secure and upright position

Roger Marolt

United Airlines did a bad, bad thing. They got themselves into a bind by booking a flight full, only to discover at the last minute that they need to transport four of their employees on that flight so that they could staff another plane at the destination. They tried to handle the situation in a decent manner, but abandoned that strategy after a couple of attempts. It makes you wonder about their commitment to handling the matter justly, but they were in jeopardy of losing money if the plane didn't take off on time and scruples usually go out the window when their holders feel pressure.

They asked for volunteers to give up their seats for $400, a hotel room and be rebooked on a flight the next morning. When that didn't attract any takers, they upped the ante to $800. Still without any interest, they resorted to a random draw of four names from the passenger manifest. Only three obliged and exited the plane under their own power.

With no sign that the fourth random pick was ready to give up his or her seat, they took the only action that was left available: They summoned several air marshals to physically grab the unlucky lottery winner and pry his hands from the seat's armrests, pulling him loose at the expense of a broken nose and a couple lost teeth before dragging him down the aisle by his arms, all dignity stripped and replaced with rug burns on his backside.

The whole thing was captured on cellphone videos that went viral as the company's stock immediately went into a flat spin. I'm sure that company executives panicked, waiting for the oxygen masks to drop as they struggled to catch their breaths. Other passengers on board can be heard screaming pleas for the guards to have mercy. They yelled that this wasn't right. They pointed out urgently that they were hurting the man. It is horrifying to watch.

And we are all left to wonder about the cruel stupidity of mankind. If United had only made one more try by upping their offer to $1,200, surely they would have come up with the volunteers they needed to abandon their seats. It would have been a minuscule price to pay to preserve billions of dollars in deflation of their stock price and protect their reputation of owning the right of way to flying the friendly skies. Surely there were a million things they could have done to avoid this disturbing event.

What is lacking in this story is a hero. It certainly is not going to be United Airlines. It is not going to be the over-zealous air marshals. It's not going to be the victim's attorneys, even if they gerrymander a multimillion-dollar settlement. And, it's not going to be the victim, himself.

After all of this, he comes across as having acted out of disproportionate stubbornness as much as general righteous principal. Perhaps most disappointing, it wasn't any of the other passengers who could have easily come to the victim's rescue, either.

It appears that a couple hundred fellow passengers on that plane sat by with their trays in the upright position and watched this event they were so demonstrably horrified by and did nothing to help the victim. It is hard to understand how so much collective indignity over what they were witnessing could possibly result in no meaningful action aside from a few impassioned pleas and gasps of disbelief.

No, I am not suggesting that any of the passengers should have jumped the presumably armed federal agents carrying out orders from above, albeit with physical force seemingly out of proportion with what was at stake. I'm not talking about some brave soul tying their body to the exit door with a luggage strap to prevent or at least slow down the egress from the aircraft in show of solidarity.

In the ensuing days since this ridiculous display of poor judgment, we have proved that we can work ourselves into a national rage that somehow will ensure that justice is finally carried out.

But perhaps the question that needs to be asked is, where was the one sane hero who could have single-handedly saved one man's nose, teeth and dignity, a trio of law enforcement officers from making a bad call, a gigantic airline's reputation and a whole lot of newsprint?

Where was the hero on that plane who, when bedlam broke out, could have selflessly yelled, "For crying out loud, stop this crap! I'll take the $800 and get off the plane instead!"

Roger Marolt has been flying out of Aspen long enough to know United Airlines will stoop to anything to save a buck. Email at roger@maroltllp.com.