“Gee mom, you were right, all those people down there really do look like ants.”

“They are ants Bobby, we haven’t left the ground yet.”

About a month ago I was flying over the rocky mountains of  Colorado on my way to a business  event and a few days of r&r in southern California.  From 39,000 feet the sight of the awesome snow-caps, while impressive, could not even have approached the experience of looking up on 30+ foot deep walls of snow from the valleys below.

Had I been caught in an avalanche of that same snow, tumbling out of control, along for the ride and perhaps finding myself, still alive, buried under that same snow my experience . . . perhaps my last living experience . . . of that same snow would have been quite different.

Perspective is like that.  It’s like the story of the two friends, a chicken and a pig, walking down the road.  The chicken says to the pig, “we really do work well together, perhaps we should go into business.”  The pig replies, “What kind of business?”  “How about a restaurant?” responds the chicken, “We could call it ‘Ham and Eggs'”.  The pig thinks about this for a second and says, “It wouldn’t work . . .  I would be committed, you would only be involved.”

How one sees the now viral story of United Airlines and Dr. David Dao is all about the lens you choose and where you point it.   The lens each of us chooses, where we point it and how we focus is largely a matter of our existing biases which we would all rather have confirmed than have challenged.  This dynamic applies in almost every area of our lives from pastime preferences to politics, but the story of United and Dr. Dao is a great illustration of how it works.

Perhaps you identify with Dr. Dao and turn your closeup lens to his perspective.  Your likely position is outrage at how this could have happened.  He bought and paid for a ticket. He had already boarded the aircraft. He had done nothing wrong, was being denied the carriage he had paid for, and the root cause was what looks like the convenience of the airline in moving a flight crew where they were needed.  He was then violently dragged off the plane and sustained serious injuries.  How could this happen in America?

On the other hand, if you take that same lens and focus in on the letter of the law United did nothing wrong. Their policy – which you agree to when you purchase a ticket whether you read it or not, and which they followed – is United’s implementation of the federal regulations on the subject in 14-CFR-250(c). Read any other airline’s policy on denied carriage and it’s pretty much the same with very minor nuances. In this view it was the passenger who was at fault. He had a contract with the airline. The airline exercised their rights under the terms of the contract (“Rule 25”) and he failed to abide by those terms. The airline called security, the passenger resisted, he was removed from the plane.  His injuries were the result of his resisting the security personnel.

Move the same lens just a little bit and the actions of airport security become questionable. Did they really have to rough the guy up so much to get him off the plane? In situations like this should people skilled in defusing emotional encounters be used rather than brute-force personnel who are trained to deal with serious security threats and potential terrorists? Same lens, different focus . . . suddenly airport security doesn’t look so good. Unnecessary roughness. Five-yard penalty . . . first down.

Focused on the airline’s perspective we see an aircraft on the ground in Louisville that needs to take off in the morning.  There is no flight crew in place. Without a flight crew the plane doesn’t leave the ground, and depending on the type of plane this could impact 200 or more passengers. Does United inconvenience three or four passengers, or inconvenience 150, 200, or even more as the ripple-effect of a flight cancellation works its way through the intensely complex aircraft scheduling system.   Most of the time this flight has enough available seats for the deadheading crew, tonight it doesn’t.  This has happened before, and it has always been taken care of without creating an international incident.  Why should the airline not be able to enforce its contract?

Let’s snap a wider angle lens on the subject.  A somewhat less myopic United could have done any number of things to prevent this from happening. They could have seen the possibility of an overbooking problem (particularly knowing they needed seats for crew alignment) and asked for volunteers prior to boarding – contingent on actually needing the seats. They could have increased their compensation offer, and at some point they would have gotten the required volunteers. They could, upon learning that this particular passenger was a physician, have made an exception and moved to the next person in the list. They could have used any number of methods to deescalate the situation prior to having to call in the storm troopers. From this view United bears at least a degree of culpability for their own self-inflicted injury, if not directly for what happened to Dr. Dow.

This wide angle view opens up a whole pile of questions. Title 14 of the federal regulations which govern civil aviation is more than a little lopsided in favor of the airlines. Do airlines really need to overbook in order to insure sufficient revenue?   Most no-show seats are reserved by customers using non-refundable tickets.  They are paid for, occupied or not.  How about a mandatory compensation for customers denied boarding that is high enough to discourage the practice in all but the most dire of emergencies. Airline deregulation was supposed to increase competition and make air travel a better and more affordable experience, but mergers have cut the number of U.S. airlines down from 15 significant players a decade ago to only 5 major carriers today.

Then there are the forces that keep trying to pull our lenses wildly around, screaming “focus on me, focus on me!”  It turns out that Dr. Dao was convicted of some particularly unsavory behavior involving sex and drugs a few years back.  Or was he?   Reports circulated in both conventional and social media suggested that there were two Dr. David Daos – a common name in Vietnam.  Before those reports were debunked they had made the rounds of social media and, confirmation bias being what it is, those on one side or the other of the growing debate seized on the story to support their side of the argument.  Then there is the matter of the security team at O’Hare who were wearing “Police” jackets even though they were not police officers and had been told to stop wearing those jackets as recently as this past January.

Some hold that the drubbing UAL stock has endured – down 1.4 billion in market cap last time I looked, and still falling, is evidence of United being at fault.  Chicagoan’s are looking at almost certain multi-million dollar lawsuit against the city which employs the security service involved, and to many of them the issue of who is right and who is wrong comes down to dollars and cents.

So many lenses.

So many places to focus.

So many questions.

So few clear answers.

One thing is certain, going forward the airlines (and not just United) are more likely to remember that those ants are really people, regardless of how tiny they might look from high up in the corporate tower.

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