Presumably, most people will agree that airlines ought to operate in a manner so as to preclude right out of the gate (pun intended) the need to ever kick ticketed passengers off a flight due to overbooking or in order to accommodate deadheading crew members, as was reportedly the case in last week’s melodrama that resulted in a few missing teeth and a broken nose for one of four spontaneously deplaned individuals, not to mention a splitting PR headache for United Airlines.
In the unfortunate event, however, that an airline’s greed or mismanagement, or unforeseeable circumstances unrelated to ethical or managerial misfeasance, do necessitate the expulsion of one or more head of cattle from their class, what to do if the search for volunteers comes up empty or short no matter how many carrots are being dangled before the traveling livestock, and if one or more of the head ultimately selected for culling mulishly resist all verbally delivered entreaties to take wing back to the terminal whence they had boarded?
Apparently, airlines have the legal right to expel passengers for a variety of reasons, from being overbooked to security concerns to immodest attire or playing Words with Friends on a digital device before takeoff—and who hasn’t yet caught on that noncompliance with a flight crew’s instructions, whatever their nature, including the instruction to extract, ranks as a federal offense?
Of course, any right without the concomitant right to enforce it is about as useful as a blackboard without chalk. Hence, for better or worse, the word enforce contains force—for what might conceivably be the point in being invested with the right to remove a person from a plane without also having the right to drag this person off by force if he or she declines to succumb to verbal persuasion?
The attorney for the family of the thus injured Asian-American physician now suing the fuselages off United Airlines put it this way:
“If you’re going to eject a passenger, under no circumstances can it be done
with unreasonable force or violence. That’s the law.”
In other words, even the attorney for the plaintiff acknowledges (a) that to eject a passenger is perfectly legal and (b) that to use force in doing so is also perfectly legal, provided that said force remains within “reasonable” bounds.
This leaves us with the task of defining those reasonable bounds in cases where a passenger lawfully selected for removal, having proven impervious to all coaxing and blandishments lavished upon him, elects to go tooth-and-nail and breaks into a kicking-and-screaming-style hissy at first contact by a law enforcement officer’s hand.
Again, a right to remove that comes with the qualification “unless the individual in question unmistakably communicates his or her insistence on staying” isn’t much of a right to remove.
If my right to throw you out of my house doesn’t extend beyond my right to ask you to leave; or if, after my asking you nicely to absent yourself has failed to produce the desired result, my right eject you by force ceases at the slightest bruise you may suffer not in consequence of my grabbing your arm but in consequence of your attempts at shaking loose; and if the same constraints apply to any law enforcement personnel I may summon to effect your removal on my behalf; I effectively have no right to throw you out of my house. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have the right to throw you out, but then let’s call a spade a spade rather than pretend I have a “right” but no meaningful right to enforce it in the face of resistance.)
The most reasonable definition of “reasonable force,” it seems to me, is the minimum amount of force necessary to accomplish an objective that has proven unattainable through non-forceful means.
Physical injuries sustained by a forcibly removed individual indicate unreasonable force only if inflicted gratuitously, not if sustained solely as a result of that individual’s twisting and flailing about in his or her quest to resist and break free.
For—syllogism alert!—if only reasonable force may be applied, and if the mere presence of resistance injuries suffices to meet the legal definition of unreasonable force, then the “right” to move an unwilling subject from A to B dwindles toward nil, because now all a targeted individual has to do is signal impassioned resistance in order to essentially compel their approaching captors to resort to unreasonable force, which would be unlawful of them to resort to—ergo, anyone willing to exhibit ferocious unwillingness to comply with a lawful order is therefore legally exempt from having to comply. And that’s absurd.
All that said, as stated in the opening paragraph, the need to remove ticketed passengers should never arise in the first place. But if it does, it makes little sense to grant an airline the right to do so and use reasonable force if necessary, but then to label unreasonable even the minimum amount of force necessary to vanquish furious resistance when encountered.
In the words of Johnny Mercer, something’s gotta give.